Editor's Note: This is one in a series of articles about Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory employees who volunteer for various non-profit agencies. This is just a sampling.
Every kid dreams of going to camp. It is a time to break loose and have fun away from your parents and siblings. However, for some kids, especially those with special needs or disabilities, fulfilling that dream is not always a possibility.
Kirsten Sprott, an employee in the Public Affairs Office at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, volunteers her time to an organization committed to ensure that every child, no matter what the challenge may be, can go to camp, making that dream a reality.
The Exceptional Needs Network (ENN) is a Livermore based non-profit that helps special needs children experience overnight camp they otherwise would not have the opportunity to participate in. ENN provides the only overnight respite camp program in the east bay and is held at The Taylor Family Foundation's Camp Arroyo, a beautiful residential camp in Livermore, Calif. They offer two summer sessions and one weekend fall camp, accommodating 45 children each (ages 6-22).
ENN was founded in 2001 by parents who wanted to help others deal with the tremendous demands of raising a child with Autism, Down's syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, or who is developmentally delayed. The goal of the camp is to provide exceptional children an environment where they can play games and sports, ride horses, swim, do arts and crafts and simply be a kid in a safe environment with their peers. It also allows the parents' time to refresh and relax knowing that their child is in good hands and having fun. For many families, camp is the "once a year respite" break to go on typical family outings while their special needs child reaps the benefit of attending camp.
Earlier this month, ENN held the weekend-long fall camp. Holly and Mike Sanders sent their son Sean, who attended the camp for the first time. This allowed them much needed time to spend with their daughter Kate and each other. "It's hard to put in words how much the weekend at ENN meant to Sean and our family," Sanders said. "Sean works hard all the time, academically, behaviorally, emotionally, socially, and more. Even when we are doing fun events as a family, we still encounter emotional bumps in the road. This past weekend for Sean was 100 percent fun and a break from daily life. He has been talking non-stop about camp, his new adventures, and the friends he met! Because of this experience, he seems more confident and full of new ideas of things he wants to try."
The camp relies on fundraisers and donations from the community and LLNL employees through the annual HOME campaign. Through donations they are able to pay their counselors, who provide a 1:1 counselor to camper ratio, as well as provide fun activities during camp such as magic shows, petting zoos, face painting and many others. They also have a camp wish list of items they are always in need of.
Sprott has been a member of the ENN board for 11 years. While she does not have a child with special needs, she felt compelled to help these families. It has become a family affair with her husband Scott, son Nick and daughter Taylor all helping out at camp. "I feel so blessed in my own life that I wanted to give back. To see the excited faces of the kids at camp and the happiness is brings to the parents makes it all worthwhile," she said.
Valerie Hund, ENN board president, says that Sprott, as secretary of the board, is the glue that holds the organization together. "Kirsten maintains the majority of the parent relations for our campers, and is the central point of contact. Kirsten's contributions are a true testament of her natural gift of helping others," Hund said.
Sprott has always enjoyed helping others and volunteering for good causes. "When the opportunity came up to join the board of ENN, it felt like a perfect fit. It has been a life changing experience, not only for me, but my family as well. My daughter Taylor looks forward to helping out a camp and she has gained so much by literally growing up with these amazing kids," she said.
Sprott recruited her good friend and LLNL employee Lisa Londry of the National Security Office along with her husband Chad to serve on the board. Together they work hard to raise money in order to keep the program free to all families. Each session costs ENN approximately $20,000 to put on. It is so popular that families camp out to be first in line at the annual camp registration date.
Londry can easily relate to the families because she has an older sibling with Downs Syndrome. "A camp such as ENN would have been much appreciated and extremely helpful to my family. I can totally identify with the extra effort it takes to provide care, oversight and advocacy for a child with special needs. In economically trying times, we are more appreciative than ever for every contribution and donation we receive. It's because of the generosity and support from others that helps ENN to continue to be able to offer our resources and support to the families in need within our communities," she said.
Several other LLNL employees have been on the receiving end as parents who have sent their children to camp.
Janet Brown, LLNL chief protocol officer, is the mother of an adult son with special needs. "ENN fills a void in the Tri-Valley where there are few resources available to assist families who have children with special needs. My son Austin attended Camp Arroyo for many years and it was an experience that he looked forward to each year. The networking and support they offer to families is invaluable," she said.
LLNL employee Kristie Monica strongly believes in the mission of ENN and has personally benefitted from ENN. "ENN is one of the most useful resources available for children/young adults with disabilities. This organization has opened doors and opportunities for my daughter, Kendra Monica, that otherwise would not have been available to her. Kendra goes to camp every year with ENN and the memories from each camp session are priceless," she said. Monica's daughter Kendra Monica was recently crowned the 2013 homecoming queen at Livermore High School.
ENN was recently announced as a recipient of the 2013 LLNS Community Gift Program. They plan to use the funds to help more local special needs children attend future overnight camps at the Taylor Family Foundation's Camp Arroyo.
ENN was a featured camp in a KGOTV video feature titled "Just Like Me: The Taylor Family Foundation."
For more information about the Exceptional Needs Network (ENN), visit their website or like them on Facebook. For volunteer opportunities or to donate supplies, contact kirstenmichele [at] gmail.com (Kirsten Sprott).