Tuesday, May 13, 2014
RICKREALL — Louie Kazemier thought it was a joke when he saw the email congratulating him on winning an all-expenses paid Caribbean cruise. "I was ready to hit delete," he recalled. "Then I recognized the name in there." The cruise was awarded to the Rickreall resident by Cabot Creamery in New York for his volunteerism with Camp Attitude. Kazemier, owner of Rickreall Dairy and director of Camp Attitude, and his wife, Lori, were nominated for the Cabot Community Celebrity Award by a camper. Camp Attitude, established in 2000, serves special needs children and their families. Kazemier and students from the Dallas Youth Ministry helped build it, which attracts people from all over the world, he said. "It's completely unique in that we will not take kids unless their family comes," he said. "Most camps are completely the opposite." Campers with special needs are partnered with a high school student, called buddies, for the entire week. Photo by Many Straus Gracie Straus of Dallas, front, takes a ride on the Camp Attitude lake with executive director Louie Kazemier on a summer camp visit. Boating, horseback riding, jet skiing and inner tubing are all on the agenda at Camp Attitude. "Anything that normal special needs kids aren't allowed to do, we do," Kazemier said. Dallas resident Mandy Straus, the mother of Camp Attitude camper Gracie Straus, said her family's experience at the camp and relationship with Kazemier has been life-changing. When Gracie first attended camp, it was after a very difficult year for her and her family. Gracie has a number of conditions, including cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and a developmental disorder called Smith-Magenis syndrome, which causes intellectual disability, speech delays and sleep disturbances. Straus said that year Gracie had to undergo several surgeries to treat her conditions. Camp Attitude provided a needed respite. "It truly felt like this little slice of heaven. It was indescribable," Straus said. "There was no cost to us to go there for a week and have a vacation, a true vacation. We built lifetime friendships. … It gave us renewed hope." Then there was Kazemier. Straus said he's become a close friend and a favorite of Gracie's — she calls him "Mr. Louie" — who would drop whatever he is doing to help a family in need. She added he never takes any credit for the positive impact the camp has on the families who attend, preferring to say it is the mission God called him to. "He's our angel," Straus said. "And you could find 500 people, if not more, who would say the same thing." Kazemier said changing lives is the most rewarding part of volunteering with the camp. "Some of the families come, and they are so scared, and so alone," he said. "By the end of the week, they realize they don't have it that bad ... or they find a support system. And to me, that is the best thing." Kazemier recounted a time when a family arrived at Camp Attitude, divorce papers in hand. "And they tore them up," he said. "On their way home, they said, 'we can do this.' But it was also the first time in 17 years that they had a dinner with just the two of them." The biggest challenge for Kazemier is when one of his campers dies, which is a more common reality for some of the kids who have severe disabilities. Photo by Kimella Modrall Louie Kazemeir reads to campers at Camp Attitude last summer. The first time he lost a camper, he went down and spoke at the funeral. "I came back here and swore I was going to quit, it hurt too bad," Kazemier recalled. The boy, Kevin, was paralyzed from his nose down. Kazemier and his family were able to visit Kevin in the hospital and say their goodbyes. Kevin died the next day. Kazemier gathered some of the young men in Dallas who served as Kevin's buddies throughout the years, and they all drove down for the funeral. "There were over 300 people (at the funeral)," he recalled. "That kid had touched more lives with his eyes, and just his eyes, than most people do in their entire lives." Now, Kevin serves as Kazemier's inspiration to keep going in spite of the pain. He enjoys working with special needs kids, many of whom have been told they can’t do things all their life. "When we get to camp, it’s 'yes, you can do this. Everybody’s going to,’" Kazemier said. "The special needs kids have a phenomenal spirit about them." Learn More What: Camp Attitude, a camp for people with special needs and their families, 100 percent volunteer-run. When: Eight weeks throughout the summer, 5.5 days per camp. Where: Foster, east of Sweet Home. Cost: Free for campers and their families. Volunteers pay $135 per individual, $250 per couple or $300 for a family for the 5.5 days of camp. Fun fact: It takes 60 high school students each week to run camp. Students are paired with a special needs child to be a buddy all week. For more information: www.campattitude.com; email firstname.lastname@example.org.