For over three decades, the Elks Lodge has owned and managed a children’s summer camp just down FM 1586 on the outskirts of Gonzales. Texas Elks Children’s Services has provided the camp free of charge to over 250 kids each summer since 1987. Registration for this year’s camp began on Jan. 1 for children with special needs ages seven and up.
The Elks Camp has offered fishing, swimming, nature hikes, archery, cookouts and campfires for children with special needs every year since it began. Campers can play sports on the basketball court or the new wheelchair accessible playing field and games like pool and foosball in the recreation room. Crafts and music activities are popular with the kids and everyone gets to make a tie-dyed t-shirt and picture frame with a special photo in it. A talent show, a costumed dance, a chicken fried steak dinner and a trip to Sea World each week have also become favorite camp traditions. The camp even has a pet tortoise and a large fish tank.
Loretta Shirley has served as the executive director of Texas Elks Children’s Services since Aug. 2018. This summer, she and Assistant Director Janet Person (known by her camp nickname, Whoopsie) have made plans to spend seven weeks with campers and one additional week of intensive training with 20 camp counselors who will be there to support the campers each week. Preparations have been set for 40 new campers to arrive each Sunday according to their age group and stay until Friday. More than 250 campers have attended in years past.
“They do all the things that kids at other summer camps do, no matter what their special needs are. We improvise and adapt so they can participate in everything,” said Shirley.
Children in foster care and kids with autism can meet the requirements to attend the camp, along with children who have cerebral palsy or Downs Syndrome. The camp’s motto is “Having a difference doesn’t make a difference.”
The 20,000 square foot building that now houses the dorm style rooms, nurse’s station, full commercial kitchen, dining room, laundry facilities and offices used for the camp was originally constructed in 1946 as a children’s hospital for polio patients. It was built next door to the Warm Springs rehabilitation center for adults with polio. Photos of the young patients line the shelves of glass cabinets stored in the former children’s hospital. After the threat of polio was virtually eliminated due to the development of a successful vaccine in the 1950s, the hospital adapted and continued to offer medical care to children. The hospital closed in the ‘80s and the facility was repurposed as a summer camp for children with special needs.
The Elks camp is funded by Elks Lodges throughout the state and donations made to the Texas Elks Endowment. A kitchen staff prepares meals for the campers and the rest of the staff throughout the summer. A nurse is onsite 24 hours a day during the camp and counselors are paid staff who also sleep onsite. Counselor recruitment begins at this time each year. Crisis prevention and intervention training, CPR and first aid training are provided. American Camp Association Accreditation was renewed in Oct. 2021.
Altogether, the camp encompasses ten acres. There is space for a paintball target shooting range and a wide pavilion next to a playground. A weekly trek is made to Palmetto State Park for nature adventures. No electronic devices are allowed. Even the staff members ditch cell phones in favor of walkie talkies for the week.
“There’s just something magical about Elks Camp and I don’t know who gets more out of it, the campers of the staff. We look forward to it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s so rewarding,” said Person.
This year will be Person’s 12th summer with the camp.
Each Friday, a graduation ceremony is held in the assembly hall when parents return to pick up their children. Each camper receives an award from his or her counselor.
“We want them to be more independent when they leave here. We want them to learn that they can be like all the other kids. Parents say they see more confidence in their kids after they come home from camp,” Shirley said.
For many of the younger children, summer camp is their first time sleeping away from home. Although it takes courage at first, Person said the children are often sad to leave at the end of the week. Shirley explained that the campers often make good friends and memories at the Elks Camp.
“We are honored to have them here,” said Shirley.