For more than 40 years, Missourians of all ages with special needs have found a summer escape in Wonderland Camp at the Lake of the Ozarks.
Tucked behind tall, thick trees, the campsite sits on a portion of a 200-acre plot. It's designed to meet the needs of its campers, who have varying developmental and physical disabilities. Campers, who can range in age from 6-106, come from across the state to participate year after year.
Wonderland Camp opened its doors in 1972 to 157 children. By the end of this summer, more than 1,000 children, teenagers and adults will have attended the camp.
Leslie "Flip" Carson, 68, of Fulton, is a regular camper, spending his last 15 summers at Wonderland Camp. He was there before some of the cabins were built. Born and raised in Jefferson City, Carson bounced around between group homes in adulthood, but camp has remained a consistant in his life.
He enjoys the title of camp prankster. Camp counselors experience the punch lines to his jokes with pies in their faces and artificial bugs in their beds.
Mark Isringhausen, 21, of Mountain Grove, experienced his second year of camp last week and connected with fresh and familiar faces.
"I see this as a place where I can come, see new people, make new friends and hang out with old friends if I see them here," he said.
Wonderland Camp is a place where campers, like Carson and Isringhausen, come and can be themselves. They develop a comfortability they might not experience in day-to-day life, said Fran Jones, a four-year camp counselor and volunteer.
"A lot of times, they go home and they're not as happy in some places, or they don't feel like they can stand up on a stage or that they deserve to stand up on a stage. But here, we want them to," she said. "You can't not be happy here."
Jones, who is pursuing a University of Missouri master's degree in nonprofit management, is one of many college students volunteering and working at Wonderland Camp. While assisting campers, the students gain expertise in their chosen fields: special education, nursing, and occupational and physical therapy.
The campers keep Jones coming back.
"You think you're helping them, but they're really helping you," she said. "You're giving everything up for someone else, and you learn a little about yourself in the process."
Applicants are only denied from Wonderland Camp if they cannot be medically supported, said Mark Sigel, camp director, but that is a very rare occasion. A nurse practitioner is on staff and available 24/7. She is supported by 13 nursing students who are medically certified. One is stationed in each cabin.
No one is sent away for financial reasons. It costs the camp about $1,000 to host one camper, but he or she is charged $650. Private donations make up the difference. If applicants cannot afford the price, Wonderland Camp staff will help them find funding.
"We don't turn anyone down due to inability to pay," Sigel said.
Every week has a different theme. Last week, the theme was medieval times. Disney, Harry Potter and pirates of the sea are upcoming themes.
Activities apply to all ages and range from fishing and shooting pellet guns to Carson's two favorite pasttimes: swimming and archery.
For anyone considering the camp, Carson said: "They should come down here because it's fun down here."