Courtesy Photo

The abundance of camps makes it hard for kids to experience summer boredom in Santa Barbara. Children with cerebral palsy, spinal injuries, or autism do not have to sit the season out on the disabled list. They are able to enjoy such opportunities as the Junior Wheelchair Sports Camp at UCSB or the Elings Park Inclusion Camp.

“Our camp is an introduction to how great life can be in a wheelchair,” said Leslie Lannan, volunteer coordinator of the wheelchair camp that is going on this week. There are 40 campers, ages 6-19, playing tennis, basketball, and rugby on wheels. They are learning how to play volleyball seated on the floor.

The camp is free to participants, who come mostly from the tri-county area. It is primarily sponsored by the Cottage Rehabilitation Foundation and Hospital. UCSB provides facilities and equipment, and contributions have come from throughout the community, including restaurants that supply food. Lannan said a record 60 volunteers have signed up. “Our counselors are people in wheelchairs,” she said. “Some of them were campers as kids.”

Elings Park inaugurated the Inclusion Camp in partnership with PeerBuddies, an organization that invites children in the mainstream to work with special-needs children. “The best way to reach these kids is to have peers, not adults, teaching them,” said Elika Shahrestani, founder of PeerBuddies. The peer volunteers receive guidance, as well. Each of them is accompanied by an adult facilitator, mostly UCSB students majoring in psychology. “Everyone is intrinsically motivated,” Shahrestani said.

Sports and games are handy ways to engage the children. They were playing dodgeball and red rover in the midst of several other sports camps at the park during last week’s camp. There will be another session July 23-27.

“This is way more fun than anything else I could be doing,” said Grace Apostolopoulos, a Santa Barbara High junior who was peer to a boy with autism. Her interest in volunteering was spiked because she has a younger brother with a disability. “I don’t know if I’ll wind up doing anything in this field [as a career],” she said, “but it’s going to be a big part of my life.”

Shahrestani said that even though the peers are asked to pay to participate, she had more applicants than she needed. Three of them — Lillie, Tanner, and Sutter Munizich — came from the same family.

Lillie Munizich, age 8, persuaded her mother to sign her up. “Elika came to my class [Washington Elementary 2nd grade] one day and talked to us and showed us videos,” she said. “It convinced me to do it. It makes me feel really happy inside because I can help these people.” Lillie said her 4-year-old buddy “is really funny. He likes games. He screeches when he’s happy. I’ve taught him to look in people’s eyes. He’s taught me a lot of things.”

“The campers are learning positive social behavior and becoming less rigid, more flexible,” Shahrestani said. “As for the peer-buddy volunteers, their personal level of responsibility skyrockets.”

Each session ends with counselor Judy Chavez reading notes that the campers and peers wrote about each other. Sometimes they are a little garbled, as in: “Grace is lost of fun.”

SPECIAL OLYMPICS: Santa Barbara sent several teams to the 2012 Summer Games at Cal State Long Beach last month, concluding a big year for Santa Barbara Special Olympics. The local chapter trained 375 children, teens, and adults with intellectual disabilities in 11 sports. Those who went to the Summer Games competed in aquatics, basketball, bocce, golf, gymnastics, and track.

“The spirit of competition is so wonderful,” said region director Sara Spataro at the Inspire Greatness Luncheon, which paid tribute to the many supporters and volunteers in the community.

Brian Medel, the volunteer of the year, was a proponent of the School Games. They started four years ago with 10 athletes from Carpinteria. Last April, 200 athletes from 22 schools converged on La Playa Stadium. “They wear their medals to school on Monday, sometimes on Tuesday,” Medel said.

Luis Quintanar, whose son Cristian is a Special Olympic golfer, gave a heartfelt speech at the luncheon. “You can change lives through sports,” he said. “You get recognized for what you do. Now [Cristian] feels good about himself. The primary need of human beings is to be liked, to be accepted.”

Applications are being taken for fall sports, including tennis, soccer, bowling, and floor hockey. Practices will begin August 18. Call (805) 884-1516 or email


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