Original article available on the Houston Chronicle website.
Suzanne Garofalo Sep. 15, 2020 Updated: Sep. 15, 2020 10:13 a.m.
When the coronavirus forced Camp Aranzazu to shift online, the staff made it work. For the children and young adults with special needs and chronic illnesses it serves year-round, summer’s virtual version was the next-best thing to bonding in person over songs, swims and s’mores.
“Aranzazu” is a Basque word meaning “a spiritual place requiring a difficult path to reach.” The pandemic has presented rough terrain, indeed, testing the camp’s ability to help campers leave their physical, mental or emotional challenges behind while they socialize and explore the world from their computer screens.
As the pandemic stretches into fall and beyond, the nonprofit is looking to combine the new format with the traditional for other efforts, too. The 12th annual Zazu — BBQ, Music & More fundraiser sees the return from last year of Texas country-Americana power couple Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis. This time, the event, Sept. 26, can be enjoyed from the comfort of viewers’ sofas for free via Facebook Live. But those who register at various tiers of support can make a party of it with benefits ranging from attending the private concert in person at the camp, on Copano Bay in Rockport, to swag and either delivery or gift cards for barbecue.
Proceeds will help staffers continue to deliver alternate programs and be ready when campers can safely return to Camp Aranzazu’s 104-acre, barrier-free facility. Since 2006, it has provided nearly 27,000 physically and/or developmentally challenged campers and their caregivers from 55 Texas counties a chance to fully participate in fishing, swimming, sailing, archery, arts and crafts and more. Fifteen percent of attendees are from the Houston area.
“It’s such wonderful, positive energy to put out into the world for people who don’t always have the opportunity to do this kind of thing,” Willis recalled of the vibe from an audience not only there to see her and her husband but to support special populations. “As musicians, we’re lucky we get to be involved.”
Fans can expect to hear Robison and Willis’ trademark harmonies on favorites as well as new single “Tennessee Blues,” Willis said.
By summer’s end, Camp Aranzazu’s staff had shared more than 130 online activities, including virtual tours of its bird sanctuary and Corpus Christi’s Texas State Aquarium, cooking sessions, campfire songs and story times. Its YouTube channel had 3,500-plus views over 12 weeks, with the number of subscribers increasing 70 percent. It also saw a bump in followers on Instagram.
A need was being met.
Camp Aranzazu recently surveyed past camp groups and this summer’s virtual camper families to gauge interest in ideas that’d been percolating since the last “difficult path,” Hurricane Harvey, which damaged two old cabins beyond repair.
“It took 2½ years to raise the money and to complete construction, but we now have a beautiful new cabin,” Camp Aranzazu’s president, Virginia Carlton Ballard, said.
Rather than just a few large rooms that sleep 12 people each, the new cabin has 10 smaller rooms, each sleeping four. In the era of COVID-19, the survey revealed comfort with long-weekend family camps.
“We are looking forward to hosting two camps this fall for families who include a child or young adult with special needs,” Carlton Ballard said.
Other new programs include Camp-to-Go, in which the staff brings modified camp activities to hospitals, schools and other organizations.
Because they resonated, online activities will remain in the mix.
Luke Lewis of Katy was signed up to attend his first camp when the coronavirus struck and canceled in-person sessions. The 11-year-old attends Houston’s Tuttle School at Briarwood for children with intellectual disabilities. Luke, who has a dual diagnosis of intellectual disability and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, adores music and still talks about the campfire songs he sang — at the top of his lungs when counselors told him to — while his father worked from home.
“He really loved it,” said his mother, Janet Lewis. “He had the opportunity to see what the future (in-person camp) might be. They had a variety of activities that were very appropriate for his level … He felt like he was at camp.”
His mother appreciated that online camp gave her son consistency and hopes Camp Aranzazu will be able to “flip the switch much faster and make it even better” moving forward.
“I loved the youth (volunteers) that were involved. It takes special people to work with special kids.”