For more than 90 years, the Rotary Club of Kansas City has been rallying all corners of the community to help thousands of kids attend camp. The club, whose members are among Rotary’s first People of Action, gave the first donation to The Rotary Foundation 100 years ago.
Jeff Dutzel moves a stone into place on the fire ring. Ashes have turned the bottom of the pit soot black from the countless bonfires that have begun and ended sessions at the Rotary Club of Kansas City’s youth camp.
Building the ring was Dutzel’s Eagle Scout project in 2000, and his introduction to the 26-acre site, which every year provides a summer camping experience for thousands of youths with physical, emotional, and mental disabilities.
“I loved what I saw about the camp, so I asked how I could become involved,” says Dutzel, who has held just about every job from kitchen assistant to his current role as director of the Boy Scouts special needs program at the camp. “I’ve been back every summer since.”
“One of our campers has been coming out here since he was 11. He’s 21 now and has Down syndrome,” says Dutzel. “Just to watch him grow as a person is amazing. Every year when he gets here, he finds me and gives me a big smile and hug and says, ‘Hi Jeff.’ It’s those things that have the biggest impact.”
The original People of Action
For more than 90 years, the Rotary Club of Kansas City, Missouri, USA, has been mobilizing an army of volunteers to keep the campsite running and meet its structural needs.
Club 13, as it is locally known, made the first donation to The Rotary Foundation, $26.50 in 1917, and its members continue to model Rotary’s passion for taking action and bringing ideas to life.
In the 1920s, Robert Gees, then president of the club, recognized the need for a summer camp for needy boys after the closing of a Boys Hotel in the city with a similar mission. Buying a heavily wooded tract near a canyon and stream, he placed it in trust, granting exclusive use to the club provided that it always be used for youth activities.
Four Rotarians and a bank representative serve as trustees today, upholding those conditions and ensuring sustainability.
The facility evolved into a special needs camp in the 1940s when Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts began using it for Scouts with disabilities. That focus broadened a decade later to all children with disabilities. Today, Scouts of all kinds use the camp on weekends when school is in session while special needs organizations and Scouts with disabilities have exclusive run of the wheelchair-accessible facilities for free all summer.
Uniting a community
For the past 30 years, the Rotary club has been uniting the community, the Kansas City Star newspaper, and the Kansas City Royals baseball organization for a giant fundraising event, Greater Kansas City Day, which channels the community’s enthusiasm for a new baseball season into support for the youth camp and other children’s causes.
The day of the Royals home opener begins with rallies and special appearances by sports greats like former Royals players George Brett and Frank White. Hundreds of volunteers, including members of 35 Rotary clubs, fan out to street corners across the metropolitan area, selling a special Royals edition of the newspaper and “Raised Royal” fan flags.
Since the Royals won the World Series in 2015, the event has raised close to $250,000 for the camp, enough to cover its budget when combined with investment earnings from the camp’s foundation, says Paul Searcy, a Club 13 member and chair of the Greater Kansas City Day committee.
“What started off as this concept to raise a few dollars has grown into a giant event that brings the whole city together,” says Searcy, a community sales manager for the Star. “It’s good public relations for the newspaper, for the city, for Rotary, and for the Royals.”
A camp for every child
At the heart of the fundraiser, and camp, is the desire to create a sense of normalcy for special needs children. Searcy says he loves that campers come from all parts of the region.
“They know they are going to be around other people like them,” he says.
amount raised by the Greater Kansas City Day fundraiser to support the youth camp
the average number of kids who go to camp each year
Searcy recalls a board meeting held in the camp’s dining hall several years ago. A group that supports children with autism was there at the same time, and one of the campers began to throw chairs and become disruptive.
“All the other kids knew exactly what to do — they all spread out and went to the edges of the hall,” he says. “No one got upset. … And within moments, everything was back to normal.”
“It was amazing to see, and solidified for me the reason we do this” he continues. “While they are in camp … they know exactly what is going on and they feel they are in a safe environment.”
‘Girls Can Camp’
Marsha Paduch spent decades running a special needs session for Girl Scouts at the camp.
Senior Scouts with an interest in special education or therapy came from all over the United States, and sometimes other countries, for the chance to work with the campers and explore a career in the field. Paduch and a core of regular volunteers provided the backbone for the program, leading five days of training before camp.
When the Scouts decided to drop the program four years ago, Paduch began her own nonprofit, Girls Can Camp, which follows roughly the same model.
“I couldn’t let it go — I knew there were still kids out there that needed this,” she says. “The campers know when they come to camp, it is OK to be who you are. No one is going to point at your wheelchair or brace. You are just going to be a camper.”
For many of the campers, the six-day stay is their only time away from home. Parents also get the rare luxury of a break from caregiving.
“Parents know their kids are our kids when they are here,” Paduch says.
Peggy Carlson’s daughter, Bridget, who attended camp for several years, has a rare genetic neurological disorder called Rett syndrome.
Peggy says it was difficult at first sending her daughter to camp, but Bridget loved it.
“She wouldn’t cry when we dropped her off, but she’d cry when we came to get her,” Peggy says. “She just loved the pool. They have these special plastic wheelchairs made from PVC that aren’t affected by the chlorine. They put her in the pool in the morning, after lunch, and in the evening.”
Becky Ottinger’s son, Joshua, was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome when he was 13. Like many parents in the same situation, she learned as much as she could and became head of the local chapter of the Tourette Association. When she learned that the Rotary facility was free to groups like hers, she called all her friends to declare she was going to have a camp that summer.
That was 24 years ago. She hasn’t missed a summer since.
It’s absolutely the most life-changing experience for our kids. It’s the first time they’ve made a friend in their entire life. They live and breathe for camp.
Director of the Joshua Center
“It’s absolutely the most life-changing experience for our kids,” she says. “We change activities every 45 minutes, the kids swim every day, cook out at night. We do archery and crafts. On the last day, we have kids that are crying. It’s the first time they’ve made a friend in their entire life. They live and breathe for camp.”
Ottinger’s organization, Joshua Center, includes therapists and counselors, and even a few medical students interested in child psychiatry, at their camp each summer.
“I had a gal come up to me during a talk at Kansas University and say, ‘I just wanted you to know I decided to be a child psychiatrist after helping at your camp five years ago,’” Ottinger says.
It takes an army
On any given weekend in the offseason, the camp is a flurry of activity, as Rotary members, Scouts, parents, and community volunteers lend their skills to make needed repairs.
Phil Kinney, president of the camp foundation, comes out a couple of times a week. On a recent Friday in April, he is zipping around in a John Deere Gator. Retired and in his 70s, he’s fearless behind the wheel of the utility vehicle, bouncing over bumps and around corners. He knows every square inch of the camp.
“I like to do things with my hands,” says Kinney, a member of the club since 1979 and active in camp management almost as long. “I built my own home 15 years ago and got it the way I want it, so I don’t have a lot to do there.”
Kinney brings the Gator to a stop beside the stump of a large tree that dropped a limb on a cabin two years ago, thankfully when no children were present. A crew of volunteers led by a Boy Scout director is at work building a replacement.
This offseason has been particularly busy, with the installation of new, vertical windows in all the cabins. The old horizontal ones weren’t great for air circulation, leaving campers on the bottom bunk out of luck in catching a breeze.
Last year, a work crew of about 60 employees from tax preparer H&R Block volunteered their time, completing six of the cabins in one weekend. This year, trim is being installed to fill the space around the windows. Fresh external paneling has also replaced 40-year-old weathered wood.
Another stop on Kinney’s tour is the dining hall, which houses nearly a museum of club artifacts. Bulletin boards near the kitchen give a pictorial history of Club 13. Portraits of the camp founders grace the fireplace mantel. And 12 large squares of heavy blue fabric, bordered with gold trim, hang above the seating area, each covered with dozens of banners from Rotary clubs around the world.
“The children see the flags and banners, and they know that Rotary is not just here, it is everywhere,” says camp director Laurie Mozley. “They leave with that knowledge that Rotary is doing good things everywhere.”
Mozley directs the project list every year.
Camp serves entire community
All services are offered for free to campers and their organizations. Here are some groups that use the camp:
Roughly 75 area schools
Children’s Mercy Hospital
The Arch of Clay and Platte Counties
Midwest Brachial Plexus Network
Girls Can Camp
Heart of America Indian Center
“Our budget would be way more if we had to hire people to do all the work,” she notes. “We get as much as we can donated. Once people find out it’s for Rotary, they are more willing to donate. Rotary is known around here for the camp.”
The greatest gift
Mozley was a teacher when she began serving as a lifeguard over her summer breaks. When the previous director, Bob Walden, retired in 1998, she stepped up as his replacement.
“I love it here,” says Mozley. “Some campers you just connect with. They come here as little kids and you watch them grow. Every summer they get excited to tell you what they have been up to. Some come back as staff, and work until they graduate college and have to get a real job. It’s a special bond.”
As Mozley reflects, several SUVs drive up the crushed gravel path, unloading Cub Scouts from Pack 323 in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, where the campsite is located. Small tents pop up on the grassy field that also serves as archery range, softball diamond, and sport activity center when camp is in full swing. Like the bulbs emerging in the flower beds around the pool, the tents herald the approach of summer, and another busy season at camp.
“I don’t think the club realizes the gift they are giving so many, especially these kids who are very bright but have very few friends,” says Ottinger. “It’s the greatest gift they could give this community.”