written by dee lackey | photos provided by west texas rehab center
Children’s laughter, squeals of delight and sing-along songs filled the morning air. Then one saw youngsters painting, swimming, riding horses, stroking shelter pets and enjoying refreshing snacks.
But something was different. Several little ones were in wheelchairs, on a small walker or talking with a rehabilitation therapist. Each camper had on a bright, primary colored t-shirt and a young teen volunteer shadowing their every move.
This was Camp Rehab – or more specifically West Texas Rehabilitation Center’s patients of varied diagnoses, ages three to twelve, truly reveling in summer fun at the Barney and Loleta Barnhart Family retreat near Lake Nasworthy.
Now in its 42nd year, West Texas Rehab therapists, Barnhart family members and dozens of volunteers knew what they were doing – and they did it very well.
This June 11th-13th, 90 campers, 115 “buddies” and 50 volunteers descended on the site after campers loaded up at St. Mark Presbyterian Church near West Texas Rehab’s San Angelo campus. They traveled on SAISD school buses the short distance to the shady site south of the city.
This year’s theme was “Animals,” and the San Angelo Nature Center, Cassie’s Place and San Angelo Rodeo Association members lined up critters of all shapes and sizes. Other past camps have focused on “Cowboys ‘n Cowgirls” and “Big Machines.”
Additionally, there’s always stations for arts and crafts, biscuit or tortilla cooking, baseball, music and singing, making s’mores, swimming, a water slide and tank fishing too!
Then there were healthy treats, drinks, lunches and desserts donated by Chik-Fil-A, Little Caesar’s, The Wharf, Dairy Queen, Halfmann’s Cake Cottage, Marquez Bakery and Quang Le, the “fruit ninja.”
Rehab Camp 2019 was overseen by co-directors Kim Kasner, physical therapist, and Anna Brinkman, speech pathologist, who direct activities and help WTRC therapists along with the Barnhart family and a host of helpers.
Kim Kasner, Camp Co-Director and Katie Koehn, Pedi OT
The bright, colorful groups were each overseen by group leaders comprised of the Center’s pediatric therapy staff. Children were placed in groups according to age and abilities.
Most adult volunteers originally were recruited by the Barnharts in the camp’s early years. Now West Texas Rehab Center Board Members also help, including Kayla Davidson of Ozona, Bob Helmers of Christoval and Dr. Robert Patyrak of San Angelo.
Long-time local pediatrician, Patyrak’s involvement with the Center spans three decades. “I’ve always admired the Center’s mission of helping everyone, regardless of their financial capabilities, and they’ve helped so many of my patients over the years.
Piccolo the Clown, aka Kathy Keaton, & Carol Santry
“After my retirement, I’ve been able to volunteer out at the Camp, and being there to experience that first-hand reminds me why West Texas Rehab is so vital to the community,” he added.
Buddies, who are ages 13-18, come from local and Concho Valley area junior high and high schools, and many of them are repeat volunteers. Once you help, you are hooked.
“We’ve known the impact of camp on our patients was just amazing, but then to see the buddies who have gone on to pursue careers in physical and occupational therapy positions is truly awesome,” added WTRC President/CEO Steve Martin, “plus other youth have been inspired to prepare for careers in special education, nursing and pediatrics.”
Several long-time helper “stars” of West Texas Rehab Camp include:
■ Loleta Barnhart, who until her passing in 2018, was the “matriarch” who personally encouraged the young campers every summer and established a scholarship to reward graduating seniors, especially those serving as outstanding volunteers.
■ Carol Santry, (Retired SAISD school teacher), who has never let her blindness keep her from playing her trusty guitar and leading sing-alongs from atop a hay bale.
■ Angie Wilson, (RN), who serves as camp nurse dispensing medications and treating minor bumps and bruises. She uses her vacation time from her health care job at Encompass Home Health to be on call at camp for the children and staff.
■ Ross McClellans and Melissa Montoya Mullins, Lake Nasworthy neighbors who’ve offered properties and expertise to add even more fun into the camping experience.
■ Linda, Barbara and Laura, (Barnhart sisters), who carry on in spite of weather woes, food/funding shortages or equipment failure – and have ignored their own business chores or family demands to be sure CAMP REHAB was ready for eager kiddos year in and year out.
■ Ray Hernandez of Menar, (Chief Broken Eagle), who delights the children and volunteers with his extensive knowledge and display of Indian history and lore.
■ Steven Goff, Chase Nobles and Ryan Nolan (Young adult volunteers), who serve lunches and help with clean-up duties as they fondly recall their own camping days.
■ Jim Rasor, (A Barnhart son-in-law), who has been a permanent fixture at camp for decades who could solve any last-minute challenges or fix whatever needed repairing.
■ Kathy Keaton, (Aka Piccolo the Clown), who also takes a break from her humor therapy with patients and staff at San Angelo Community Medical Center to entertain the campers and buddies with her red nose, kazoo and zany antics.
“To see the buddies who have gone on to pursue careers in physical and occupational therapy positions is truly awesome,” -Steve Martin
The Rehab Camp’s beginnings date back to 1978, a year after the Rehab Center expanded into San Angelo from its home base in Abilene. Studio photographer Barney Barnhart and Rehab Center president/founder Shelley V. Smith had become fast friends. After a handshake with Smith, Barney offered their Lake Nasworthy retreat as a location for the Center to host a summer camp for its patients.
From a dozen participants at first, the camp has continued to flourish and grow. After Barney’s passing in 1991, his entire family, including wife, Loleta, and daughters, Linda and husband Jim Rasor, Barbara Barnhart Rallo and Laura Gillis, infused the camp with even more activities, food, fun and volunteers.
“What touches us at West Texas Rehab is how Barney and Loleta instilled their love of Rehab and it’s patients in their daughters who have continued to provide this wonderful camping experience for more than 40 years,” Martin said.
And the more than five dozen smiling volunteers ages eight to 80 too numerous to mention who mow, exterminate, pull trailers, help build crafts and corral kids and animals… plus set up tents, tables and chairs.
“What touches us is how Barney and Loleta instilled their love of Rehab and it’s patients in their daughters who have continued to provide this wonderful camping experience for more than 40 years” -Steve Martin
“Whether the young campers are wheelchair-bound due to disorders such as cerebral palsy, ones with sensory or social issues or those with developmental delay or autism, they get to just be a “kid” for a few days,” added marketing director Suzanne Click.
Just think of the experiences they’ll have to share with family and friends as their “what I did this summer” takes on even more added importance. †