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Camp Knutson turns 50
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Alice LaBarre teaches a sign language class at Camp Knutson. The camp has hosted disabled campers for 50 years. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
For 50 years a summer camp in north central Minnesota has served as a getaway for disabled kids. Camp Knutson gives them the chance to experience the outdoors. Advocates for the disabled say the camp also lets them meet kids just like themselves.

Crosslake, Minn. — Camp Knutson sits on a peninsula that splits Crow Wing County's Big Trout and White Fish Lakes. With cabins in the woods and a sunny strip of beach this looks like a typical Minnesota summer camp. But Director Rob Larson says it's not. This camp is about more than just crafts and canoeing.

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Image Rob Larson

"We do a week for children with Down Syndrome," Larson said. "And two weeks for children with severe skin diseases, a week for adults and families who are infected with HIV and AIDS, two weeks for children with severe heart disease and a week for families who have deaf and hard of hearing children."

Camp Knutson was set up on August 24th, 1953 when Minnesota Congressman Harold Knutson gave his vacation property to the Lutheran Church. Knutson wanted to see a camp created for disabled children. 50 years later attitudes and treatments have changed, but Camp Knutson is still living up to its original mission.

Now run by Lutheran Social Services, it provides a support staff so kids with serious medical issues can attend camp. It's furnished with sophisticated equipment just in case emergency medical care is required. Larson says their goal is to give these kids a chance to have some fun and to meet other kid's with similar life stories.

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Image The Johnsons

"A lot of these kids are isolated," Larson said. "They feel like they may be the only kid in the world that might have this and they come here and all of a sudden see there's others with the same issues."

That's a revelation not only for the campers, but for their families as well. Tammy Johnson is here at camp with her husband, their 11-year old daughter and their 7-year old son Mason, who's hard of hearing. Tammy Johnson says it's great for her son to interact with other deaf kids. For her it's a relief to meet parents who share the same experiences. The Johnsons are the only people in their small town of Middle River with a hearing impaired child.

"It's easy to be yourself. With hearing people, you have to explain why Mason is so loud. You don't have to do that here, you don't worry," Johnson said.

While Mason enjoys the fun of summer camp, his family is taking classes on sign language. Alice LeBarre, assistant director for deaf and hard of hearing services at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, teaches those classes. Her students are not deaf but they all have brothers and sisters at camp who are. LeBarre says Camp Knutson is a good place to teach families sign language. She says they'll learn more here than they would in a stuffy classroom in the city.

"We're building community. We eat together, we're on campus together for five days, and that's real different than a weekend or just a Tuesday night class," LaBarre said.

Camp Knutson hosts nearly a thousand kids each summer. Camp officials say a recent $3 million renovation should keep them in business for a long time.

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