Authors: By JOHN JOHNSTON
CINCINNATI (AP) -- At Camp Joy, a 12-year-old girl who lost a leg to cancer moved slowly toward the archery range. Her wheelchair was nowhere in sight.
Alexis Feltner didn't need it. Not with Gena Keszei, 16, and Laura Mullen, 18, providing supportive hands and encouraging words. They helped the Dayton, Ohio, girl do something she's unaccustomed to: walking more than 50 yards on a prosthetic leg.
Other campers whooped it up when Alexis arrived.
"It's absolutely amazing," Gena, a camper from Granger, Ind., said later, "to see this girl go from a wheelchair (and saying) `I'm not getting up,' to walking that distance."
It's the kind of life-changing experience that campers, counselors and administrators say occurs frequently at nonprofit Camp Joy, located about 40 miles northeast of downtown Cincinnati in eastern Warren County.
On any given summer week, buses arrive with "underserved" kids - those who might not normally have a camp experience. Some have cancer, heart or blood diseases, juvenile arthritis or diabetes; some are economically disadvantaged or come from foster homes. Another 6,000 children participate in the camp's outdoor education program, offered through schools throughout the year.
An equal number of adults take part in a leadership and development program.
As Camp Joy prepares to mark its 75th anniversary next year, few other camps in Ohio can lay claim to such breadth of programming, said Dennis Elliott, the executive with the American Camp Association's Ohio field office.
With a 317-acre campus, Camp Joy can accommodate several groups at once in separate areas. That was the case the last full week of July, when the camp was abuzz with day campers (a mix of special needs and typical children), foster youth and the Virginia-based Amputee Coalition's Paddy Rossbach Youth Camp.
It marked the fifth consecutive year the Amputee Coalition held its five-day session at Camp Joy. The coalition brought 94 campers, ages 10 to 17, from 29 states.
"We have children with very limited mobility," said Kim Henshaw, programs and services coordinator for the coalition. "This was the place that could accommodate them, and it has a lot of activities we had not been able to provide them in the past."
No worries about people staring
An athletic 13-year-old, Anna Amend of Finneytown, said her favorite activities include swimming, the high ropes course, archery and creative arts. Since birth, she's had no right arm, and her right leg is significantly shorter than the left, so she uses a prosthetic leg to walk.
This was her second year at camp. She acknowledged that last year it took a nudge from her mother to get her to come.
"At first I thought, `I don't think I'm really going to like this,'" she said, "but then when I came, it was really good.
"We all have the same struggles and issues. But when we come here, we don't have to be worried about people staring or anything."
Rosalyn Shelley, 19, of Clifton, said she, too, was nervous the first time she came to Camp Joy as a foster child in 2005.
"I was scared to open up. But once I did, I had a good time and made a lot of friends. I challenged myself. I stepped outside my box. The counselors were awesome."
Now, she's a University of Cincinnati social work major - and a Camp Joy counselor who works with foster youth. "I can offer them motivation to never give up," she said.
A focus on low-income and at-risk youth has been part of Camp Joy's mission since its founding in 1938. It partners with more than 20 agencies, such as Boys and Girls Clubs, ProKids and St. Joseph's Orphanage.
Over the years, though, the camp has expanded its reach. In 1972 it became a year-round camp with the establishment of its outdoor education program.
Sixty participating schools in Ohio and Kentucky can choose from classes such as wetland or forest ecology, cultural history and a program that re-enacts the escape of slaves on the Underground Railroad.
In 1984, to help generate revenue for its youth programs, Camp Joy began a leadership and development program that now serves about 6,000 business professional and young adults a year.
And in the mid-1990s, Camp Joy began offering camps for children with medical and other special needs. To accommodate them, the entire campus was made accessible - from cabins and trails to the ropes course and zip line.
For such camps, Joy partners with organizations such as Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and the Amputee Coalition. They bring their own doctors, nurses and therapists to camp, with Joy providing supervisory staff.
"All of our programs are customized to meet the needs of a group," said Amy Thompson, Camp Joy's executive director.
She shares the leadership role with Mike McGinty, executive director of the Camp Joy Foundation. He said the full cost of sending one child to Camp Joy for a week is $525. Partnering agencies pay most, if not all, of that. Many families pay only $40, he said.
Families of children attending the Amputee Coalition camp pay nothing; coalition donors pay all costs, including transportation.
Gena Keszei and Laura Mullen - the girls who helped a fellow camper walk on a prosthetic leg - and their friend Daniel Carroll, 17, said they appreciate that. Gena and Laura are leg amputees; Daniel lost an arm in a car accident.
"Friends encourage you at home," said Daniel, who is from Woodbridge, Va., "but when you come to this camp with 100 people you don't know, and they're encouraging you, it's a whole different meaning. This camp has changed my life."
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com