College of Health, Education and Human Development

Adults with developmental disabilities triumph at Outdoor Lab camp

By Melanie Kieve

Jaycee Camp Hope camper Paul is all smiles on the dock at Clemson's Outdoor Lab, home to the camp for adults and children with developmental disabilities.While fellow campers paddled about the lake at Clemson’s Outdoor Lab camp and conference center, Paul sat triumphantly in his canoe, half on land and half in the water.

“I did it!” exclaimed Paul, who until that morning had not ventured near the canoe or lake during his time at Jaycee Camp Hope, a camp for adults and children with developmental disabilities.

For Paul, sitting in a grounded canoe was the ultimate victory – one of many that happen every day at the camp, sponsored by the South Carolina Jaycees in partnership with the Outdoor Lab, an initiative of Clemson’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management.

Paul, 32, is among the many adults who come to Camp Hope year after year. A camper from Doraville, Ga., Paul has been a part of the camp for 18 years. Other campers have come for decades, including one who has been at the camp every year for 47 years, said Cal Dunlap, program assistant at the Outdoor Lab.

In one- or two-week sessions, campers enjoy typical camp activities – swimming, canoeing, fishing, drama, archery, sailing, hiking, kayaking, gardening, crafts, gem mining, and more.

But in the midst of the recreational activities, campers also develop life skills, Dunlap adds. They gain independence by staying in cabins with fellow campers and counselors, doing chores, sharing random acts of kindness with campers and staff, and taking part in a “mock city” where they learn skills such as going to a store and getting a haircut.

“They are in a great environment where they learn practical and social skills,” said Timmy Young, the camp’s male head counselor. “But at the end of the program, the campers always say their favorite part is being with the counselors and other campers.”

Click the photo to view the Camp Hope and Camp Sertoma slide show.Camps that make a difference

Located five miles from the Clemson campus on Lake Hartwell, the Outdoor Lab is home to a variety of camps that support individuals with special needs and children from economically disadvantaged families, says Outdoor Lab Director Leslie Conrad.

Among them are Camp Sertoma, a camp for underprivileged, hearing-impaired, and speech-impaired children; Camp Lions Den for children and teens with visual impairments; Camp Sunshine, a weekend camp for children and adults with profound developmental disabilities; and Camp Hope. The Outdoor Lab hosts approximately 650 campers each year, and while most of them come from South Carolina, some travel from surrounding states and as far away as Arizona – evidence that camps serving these populations are increasingly rare, Conrad said.

The impact of these programs is profound and far-reaching. “The Outdoor Lab provides a sense of place for the campers, and they look forward to coming every year,” Conrad said. “I hear from relatives and caregivers who say that their camper’s year revolves around two events – Christmas and camp.”

The camps also provide a break for parents, relatives and caregivers, she added. “They have the opportunity to focus a little more on themselves and the other relationships in their lives, knowing that their camper is having a great experience in a safe, secure environment,” she explained.

The benefits even extend to camp counselors and other summer camp staff, many of whom are students at Clemson and other colleges. “We are able to provide an incredible opportunity for students to gain practical experience in their fields, whether it is parks and recreation, special education, therapeutic recreation, or another area,” Conrad said.

“These camps are wonderfully rich experiences for all involved – campers, staff and administration,” added Dr. Brett Wright, chair of Clemson’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management. “The Clemson Outdoor Lab is one of the truly great things about this university, and its staff make a true difference in the lives of those they serve. “

Collaborations that make camp happen

Such camps also illustrate the power of collaboration, Conrad and Wright noted. Service organizations such as the South Carolina Jaycees, Sertoma Clubs, Lions Club, and Knights of Columbus partner with the Outdoor Lab to put on the camps, providing partial or full funding for campers to attend. 

To help make camps possible, the Outdoor Lab also hosts educational and recreational activities such as field trips, overnight school events, conferences, workshops, retreats, family reunions, and weddings throughout the year. For more information, please visit or call (864) 646-7502.

The Outdoor Lab and Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management is part of Clemson’s College of Health, Education and Human Development, which also houses the university’s School of Nursing, Department of Public Health Sciences, and Eugene T. Moore School of Education, as well as many centers, institutes, and distance education programs. For more information, visit