Camp Cradle Beach: Uniting Children, Fostering Lifelong Values

By Amanda Jowsey

Since 1888, Camp Cradle Beach in Angola has been bringing together kids from all walks of life unlike any other summer camp in the Buffalo area. 

Its unique, fully integrated program for the summer camp sessions offers families of those both with and without disabilities the equal opportunity to have an irreplicable and memorable summer camp experience.

Stephanie McGrath, director of advancement and development at CB, exemplifies the core values and the heart of the CB mission: Inclusion, integrity, adaptability, respect, safety and team.

“My sister, Kaitlin, had developmental disabilities, including cerebral palsy. We grew up in an inclusive household where Kaitlin was able to do basically anything I could do. My parents were very inclusive in the fact that she had the ability to do whatever she set her mind to. It was never ‘Kaitlin had a disability.’ It was always just, ‘she’s Kaitlin.’”

In high school, she ended up running and competing in the Special Olympics through track.

“She was a great runner. I just think it’s amazing looking back at all the obstacles she was able to overcome to do that,” McGrath said.

She thanks the inclusive and supportive mindset, and her sister’s determination, for successes like these.

In her role with CB, McGrath is grateful for the chance to carry over the lasting lessons her family taught her.

“I think inclusivity is the best thing to do… If you’re always saying, ‘oh, careful, you have a disability,’ that kind of puts the thought in someone’s head,” she said.

The takeaway: don’t treat someone differently for their differences.

This is something that all caretakers of those with special needs, and all of those with special needs want to feel in this world.

“That’s what I love about CB. We bring children together. Not just children with disabilities, but children who might come from a household that is financially at risk, or could just be a child who wants to attend summer camp,” she added. “At CB, almost any child can attend.”

CB teaches children inclusion, kindness, new perspectives, self-esteem, and countless lifelong skills and values in a unique way that may not otherwise be offered in our typical lives.

“Not every child has the opportunity to interact with someone who may be different from them, whether it be financially, socioeconomically or medically. There are many children who don’t have disabilities and therefore don’t interact with kids who do have them,” McGrath said. “CB gives children the opportunity to step outside their comfort zone or the world in which they live and really meet their peers who come from different backgrounds and who have different capabilities.”

The judgment-free, fun, no-pressure, natural, loving and accepting environment at CB allows children from every circumstance to come and share the universal joys we all share as humans—especially the simple joys of summertime in Buffalo.

“It’s just a really good opportunity for children to learn inclusivity and experience acceptance in every form and at every level. We like to say that at CB, the kids are surrounded by nature and by love and acceptance… It really reminds me of the upbringing that I had when it was just me and Kaitlin,” McGrath said.

CB offers eight five-day sessions that provide life-changing opportunities throughout the summer for children aged 8-16. Their organized activities “promote socialization, independence and decision making in an atmosphere of love and acceptance. Everyone plays, eats and attends activities together,” McGrath said.

McGrath’s favorite thing to see is the kids enjoying CB’s amazing T-shaped swimming pool that holds 242,000 gallons of water and takes two days to fill.

“Their personalities shine through when it’s swim time,” she said.

The pool consists of four special zones designed to accommodate the needs of every camper:

• a water acclimation zone

• a special sensory no-splash zone

• a 5-foot area that kids can test into

• and a 9-foot area with a diving board that kids can test into.

CB even offers American Red Cross swimming lessons for up to 500 kids every summer.

“Many of the kids, especially those who come from financially at-risk situations, would not have the ability to take these types of certified swimming lessons. It’s a super fun activity, but also a life-saving skill,” McGrath said.

CB incorporates “Play Stations” throughout the day, which include sports sampling, a new safe archery set, swimming, arts and crafts, computer technology, dance, a sensory room, STEM classrooms and more.

“These stations allow children to explore educational and recreational areas of interest they likely could not access in their day to day lives,” McGrath said.

2020 was the first time in more than 100 years that CB had to shut down; because of COVID-19. McGrath noticed that when her campers and families returned, they had been significantly and negatively impacted by the pandemic and by the loss of a resource such as CB during that difficult summer.

Both the kids and the families rely on CB for a kind of caregiver respite. “You know your kids are in a safe place and you know they’re learning good skills,” she said.

CB offers caretakers of those with special needs a mental vacation that they may never get otherwise.

When they reopened, they knew they had to adapt their model to best serve the needs of the community. 2022 is the first summer with their new session models, which changed camp stays from seven-10 days to just five days. Campers are also welcomed to come back for a second stay in the summer. CB finds that children have a greater rate of success completing their stays and feel better about themselves when they can accomplish this mission.

Everything CB does is to make the campers and their families feel safe and supported through every aspect of their journey. The team at CB truly believes in and upholds the missions they advertise.