HEBRON — Leo Germain experienced a lot of firsts at Camp Hemlocks.
First kiss. First girlfriend. First time riding a horse. First time climbing a wall.
The first two may not seem like a big deal, but the second two were landmarks for Germain, who was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, a birth defect that impedes the development of the limbs.
Germain’s arm muscles are either underdeveloped or missing. When he types on a computer keyboard, he uses his feet or puts a pen in his mouth and pecks away.
Camp Hemlocks, established by Easter Seals in Trumbull in 1950, moved to Hebron in 1974. It was designed for people with physical or intellectual disabilities to experience the outdoors. Thousands of youths and adults from around New England have been campers there.
“Camp Hemlocks was a place where I left my disability at the door and people judged me for who I was, not what I had,” said Germain, 53, who lives in Manchester.
The 100-acre camp is closing permanently Saturday due to a lack of funding, according to Easter Seals officials. The announcement of the closing in October sparked an online petition, so far signed by almost 2,000, to keep the camp open.
Germain, who camped there for 23 years, was an ambassador for Easter Seals for eight years, served on the board of directors for four years, was married there in 1991 and developed lasting friendships He said he is struggling with the idea that others won’t get the opportunity to have the same life-changing experiences he had.
“Besides the fact that it was wicked cool and had an indoor pool, it’s where I felt normal,” he said, adding that the camp was also a valuable resource for his mother.
“It gave my mom some respite from taking care of me and she got moral support because of the other parents,” he said. “It made her feel normal, too.”
As a board member, Germain learned about the financial side of Camp Hemlocks, so he doesn’t completely blame Easter Seals Coastal Fairfield County, which owns the camp, for making a decision based on finances.
“The camp never ran in the black,” he said. “They know they are going to lose money and it shouldn’t matter.”
He said that he had been holding out hope that someone would step forward to save the camp.
Easter Seals officials have not said whether they plan to sell or retain the property, of if they plan to offer summer camp experiences at another venue.
Meanwhile, Channel 3 Kids Camp in Andover has broken ground on Ashley’s Place, a 4,500-square-foot, 64-bed, handicapped accessible, dormitory-style cabin that will serve children with special needs.
The cabin, funded primarily with a $500,000 gift from the Ashway House Charitable Foundation Trust, will feature 24-hour nursing care. The cabin is named in memory of Ashley Leveillee, the late daughter of the foundation’s president, Kathy Leveillee.
The cabin is scheduled to open in time for the 2014 summer camping season. Camp officials, who have been working to make the entire camp handicapped accessible, envision having an equal mix of campers with disabilities and those who don’t staying in the cabin.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for children to come together,” said Denise Hornbecker, executive director of Channel 3 Kids Camp.
Hornbecker said her biggest challenge is finding enough space for all the families who want to send their children to the camp next summer.
“Maybe we’ll have to build a second cabin,” Hornbecker said.
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