By Andres Rosales
In the first week of June, the White Mountains will see its first campers arrive at the pine tree-filled campsite of Camp Tatiyee. The first campfire song will be sung, and new life-long friends will meet. Perhaps by then, a camper will already have planned a prank on the kitchen staff or learned a new skill. Some say that by the end of that first week, a camper’s life will be changed.
Since 1958, Arizona Lions Camp Tatiyee has impacted the lives of campers, campers’ families, and staff members with life-changing summers and one holistic mission: to enrich the lives of individuals with special needs by providing a life-improving experience to promote their emotional health, independence, self-esteem and confidence; all free-of-charge.
Camp Tatiyee, in Pinetop, Arizona, is divided into week-long sessions where campers with similar disabilities attend together. Campers who identify with physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities, multiple disabilities, and deaf or hard of hearing, each attend sessions geared to them specifically. Each week, campers enjoy activities like archery, science programs, go-cart racing, dancing and talent shows, all designed around the camp’s mission. The weeks are tailored for school-age sessions and adult sessions, but each promotes independence, self-esteem, health and confidence.
“It will change your life,” says Jace Brimhall, a former camper who has participated in Tatiyee for 16 consecutive summers. Brimhall, similar to many campers who attend, was born with spina bifida but has successfully grown to live independently. He now works as a camp counselor and says he looks forward to contributing in making new campers’ summer experiences just as fun and impactful as his were. “Knowing that makes me a little bit happier,” Brimhall says, “knowing that I helped them be happier.”
“It will change your life.”–Jace Brimhall
Brimhall laughingly recalls that The Parent Trap, a summer camp movie from 1999 starring Lindsey Lohan, led him to think that summer camp could be fun. Although Camp Walden in the 90s hit movie is a tough one to beat, Brimhall admits, “[Tatiyee] was a lot better than the movie!”
Nice try, Lindsey.
Brimhall credits Camp Tatiyee’s uplifting environment for his current lifestyle, saying his experience at camp helped him step out of his comfort zone. “I just have more confidence in myself,” he says, “even though I have these physical differences… there’s nothing wrong with me.” Since leaving small-town Snowflake, Arizona, the 26-year old has lived in Tempe and currently resides in Tucson.
Campers’ family members are also impacted by the non-profit, as they must learn to trust others to care for their loved one during an entire week. Susie Baker, the mother of nearly decade-long camper Eden, recalls dropping off her daughter at Tatiyee that first summer.
“[Staff] were just really good at making me feel comfortable and secure, knowing she’d be taken care of,”–Susie Baker
Baker noted a natural hesitance to leave your loved one at camp but admits her daughter has benefitted greatly from the experience. “I think it’s just really hard to give up that control,” Baker shared.
Baker also highlights Eden’s increased confidence and newfound friendships after her first week at camp. Eden stays in touch with a lot of the Tatiyee friends from her nine summers.
Eden agreed, saying that her initial fears of being away from home were replaced with the inclusion she felt at camp. “People just get it,”
“It’s nice being in a place so accepting.”-Eden Baker
Eden and Jace both agree that the most memorable thing from their years as campers is simply the people.
Camp Tatiyee’s Director, Pam Swanson, who began as a camp counselor in 1984, admits she understands the concerns that both campers and their parents may have before a session. More so, Swanson says she keeps all of those concerns in mind throughout the hiring process. However, Swanson primarily looks for “people skills” during staff interviews, stating that camp staff should be people that genuinely want to be around and enjoy other people. “We are there for the campers,” Swanson affirms, “to give [campers] an amazing experience… where people are trained to take care of all [of] their needs and want to be there.”
Swanson says that staff, consisting of motivated college students alongside experienced returners, may be the most impacted participants at camp. “Staff are the forgotten token,” she says, recalling the numerous stories of how impactful camp has been. With the staff slogan “campers first”, it’s difficult to decide.
Some might even argue that the most impacted people are those who meet someone from camp but have never been to Tatiyee themselves, but maybe it’s not a competition. Among the pines and forest floor, the only real competition is deciding who can enjoy their time at camp more. Regardless, by the last week of July, hundreds of campers will leave the fresh outdoors with countless stories about their experience at Camp Tatiyee.
Andres Rosales is a small-town kid who never really learned how to write a bio. Instead, he spent most of his time watching music videos on YouTube. He’s a self-taught guitar player who participates in occasional open mics; so he’s clearly come a long way. Andres is a sucker for breakfast burritos at midnight and intriguing conversations, Andres is a sophomore at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.