GREENVILLE — It was the summer of 1964 and for the first time Camp Wah-Wah-Tay-See opened its doors to the special education students of the Greenville area.
It offered them the experience of camping, the chance to meet new people, and most importantly it gave them a chance to have fun in the great outdoors.
The brainchild of Jerry Hansen, a then special education teacher in Greenville, Wah-Wah-Tay-See, now known as Optimist Camp, brought in eight students the first summer.
It didn’t take long for the camp to grow and become a desired destination for the area’s special needs students and adults.
Now, 50 years later, the 10-plus-acre camp serves more than 300 special needs students and adults through a collaboration between community groups and the public.
Owned by the city, the park is leased for $1 annually by Greenville Optimist Club. Its administration duties are handled by EightCAP Inc. and is almost entirely funded through community fundraisers and donations.
“It really is a community effort,” said Mayor Pro Tem Frances Schuleit.
The camp will be honoring its past and thanking the community for its dedication during a 50th anniversary celebration from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. July 26 at the camp, 825 South St.
“This community has always supported the camp,” said Bob Hemmingsen, Optimist Club president and camp advisory board president. “We couldn’t do it without them.”
While the story behind the scenes at Optimist Camp has been the community effort to keep it running successfully, the primary reason for the program is the campers.
“A lot of the campers say, ‘this is my camp.’ And it is theirs,” said Hemmingsen, who was a campgoer himself in the late 1970s.
“I have dyslexia, which qualified me for the camp,” he said. And the camp became a home to him, somewhere he wanted to always remain.
“It is a major part of my life, this camp. It is where I decided I wanted to be a teacher and where I met my wife and proposed to her right there by tent three,” Hemmingsen said.
In 1982 Hemmingsen became a counselor and later a special education teacher. He has served as the camp’s director and is now the camp’s advisory board’s president.
What the camp has done for him drives Hemmingsen to offer the same sort of experience to the special needs population in the Greenville area now.
“It’s a very important place to me, but more importantly to the campers,” he said. “It really gives them a chance to shine.”
With activities like archery, fishing, canoeing, swimming, basketball, arts and crafts, boating and more, the Optimist Camp gives its campers a complete camping experience, whether just a day camp or overnight.
“Sometimes this is the only place they can go to get away and enjoy time with their friends,” said Camp Director Jolynn Spencer.
In addition to the social aspect, the camp also gives students a chance to develop.
“They can make new friends and work on skills to become more independent,” Hemmingsen said.
The camp offers five weeks of service to special needs campers during the summer. During the summer, camps are held for students 5 to 10 years old; 10 to 16 years old; and adults.
Students from the William J. Seiter Educational Service Center also take part in a day camp three Fridays during the summer.
“How many communities have something like this for this population? Not many,” said Dan Petersen, president of EightCap. “This place really says Greenville and Montcalm County really care about the quality of life for all people, regardless of the cards they were dealt.”
It is because of that care the facility is hosting a 50th Anniversary celebration. The event will kick off with an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast at 10 a.m.
Cost is $8 for adults and $5 for children. A $25-deal for families of five or more is offered.
All of the money raised goes back to the camp for operation, programming and food for campers.
“Everyone is invited, it’s open to the public,” Schuleit said.
While it will celebrate its past 50 years, the camp is always thinking about the next 50.
“Another 50 years is important to me,” Hemmingsen said. “I just can’t imagine not having this opportunity for our students and adults with special needs.”