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Camp Munroe opens with precautions in place

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"Our staff is the best staff anyone could ask for," said Nicole Giron, MMI interim director of recreational therapy.

Throughout this spring, Nicole Giron spent a lot of time studying.

MMI's interim director of recreational therapy, who holds a master's from the UNMC College of Public Health, was scouring protocols and literature to determine whether it would be possible to safely hold this summer's Camp Munroe for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

One last summer

This year will be Nidal Sharif's last at Camp Munroe.

The 21-year-old, who has been attending camp for 17 years at MMI, ages out next year. Mom Graciela Sharif, who works at MMI, said she's been grateful for Camp Munroe.

"It has become part of his summer routine," she said. Although Nidal has taken part in other recreational therapy programs, "Camp Munroe has always been the highlight."

Nidal was excited to learn that camp would be held this year. He attended a Special Olympics basketball game in Fremont in February and was among the first Nebraskans to have to go into quarantine when an attendee tested positive.

"He was so scared about the COVID issue, he would not leave the house for months," Sharif said. "I'd take him to the grocery store just to get him out of the house, and he'd refuse to get out of the car."

But the siren call of Camp Munroe proved too much to resist.

"He knew when he turned 21 that it's the last year he can attend Camp Munroe," Sharif said. "He wore his mask the whole time, and he really enjoyed all the activities. He did come back and tell me that there were less people than ever, but he'd still come back singing his camp songs and share all the other things he did.

"The fact that he was able to see people that he knows, he was a completely different person."

Sharif said she was pleased that MMI was able to hold Camp Munroe so Nidal didn't miss his last year.

"It's a great respite for parents, especially this year," she said. "I needed to know that he was in a secure, fun, friendly place, a place I can trust as a parent. And it was a little touch of normality, going back to our summer routine. We felt so excited for him, and just to see his behavior recharged our energy as parents."

"I felt very strongly that I needed to do research and work with health officials," she said. "Like the rest of the institute, I put a lot of thought into how we could safely serve our people and assist with the social isolation many families are experiencing. My studies in public health made such a difference in putting together policies that will protect our participants as we all know there is a tremendous amount of misinformation out there.

"Our entire core staff team worked together to discuss concerns and we collectively assessed every nook and cranny of our current processes and evaluated the many changes we would need to implement to make sure we were complying with UNMC and Douglas County Health guidelines. We waited until June 1 to make a final decision based upon the case numbers in Douglas County. We also let families know that programs could potentially be put on hold again if case numbers change."

On July 6, Camp Munroe welcomed its first batch of 26 campers -- about one-third the size of a regularly weekly group. The camp is operating for four weeks only.

MMI has many safety measures in place, including but not limited to:

  • Daily health checks for staff and campers;
  • Groups of no more than six campers;
  • Staggered arrival times;
  • One-to-one camper and staff support to ensure social distancing between campers;
  • Masks on all staff and all campers except for medical or behavioral concerns;
  • Handwashing for campers and staff before and after each activity; and
  • Sanitation of each room following a group's use.

"We have a fun camp environment, but we're making sure the kids are aware of the rules," Giron said. "And most of our kids are aware the virus is out there. It's been really nice to have the support from all of our families so we could help serve their kids and provide a camp experience."

A camp experience is just what 11-year-old John Paul Hauser needed this summer, said his mother, Tami Hauser. Since school shut down, John-Paul -- who has what his mother describes as "severe and profound" disabilities because of his trisomy-13 diagnosis -- has had little social interaction with friends.

Hauser didn't hesitate to send John Paul to camp once MMI decided to open it.

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John Paul Hauser, left, at summer camp.

"I figured if they had the confidence to open, that they had done their due diligence.

"I just want him to have a full life," she said. "He's at risk and there's a lot more you have to worry about with him, but I can't imagine not letting him live life."

Camp Munroe is one of very few activities John Paul can participate in, his mother said.

"He has a lot of camp friends," she said. "We just had a Make-a-Wish party for him on Friday, and he had five camp friends attend who work there -- they're all young adults in college or high school. Sometimes they just stop by -- there are two girls who live up the street who stop by and take him to get ice cream. Camp Munroe has the best volunteers and workers -- it just draws the best in humanity. That's why camp is so awesome."

With the smaller number of campers, Camp Munroe has even been able to have its traditional weekly visitors, such as Animal Encounters, entertain the children in the gym of the former J.P. Lord building -- events that are possible, Giron said, because the smaller number of campers and the size of the gym makes social distancing compliance possible.

"There's not any physical interaction, of course -- the kids don't hold the animals as they usually get to do, and nothing gets passed around. But we're trying to make it as fun and as typical a camp for the kids, because we know their world has been turned upside down."

Staff has also been downsized, from 60 to about 35, and no volunteers are taking part this year.

"Our staff is the best staff anyone could ask for," Giron said. "They show such vigilance, such care. We all take this incredibly seriously, and we are all so happy that we can provide a service to our families.

"I've had several parents tell me they feel safe sending their children into our care -- and that is an incredibly powerful acknowledgement of the work we do. We are really grateful for the trusted relationship we have with our families, and so happy to be able to serve them during these trying times."

"Camp Munroe is an important annual event for many of our families," said MMI Director Karoly Mirnics, MD, PhD. "Nicole and her staff have prepared well and are working hard to ensure that this year's camp is a safe and fulfilling experiences for the children and young adults we serve. Especially this year, when so many are struggling, we are excited to be able to offer a camp experience to our families."

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