A Happy Camper Answers Her CallingApr 29, 2021 03:53PM ● By Sara Locke
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Some people don’t know their calling until they hear it.
Jami Biodrowski found creating accessible and inclusive experiences was more than the call of the wild, but a calling to do amazing things for children.
Between a Rock and the Right Place
“I got my degree in geology, so it’s funny that this is the career I chose.” Biodrowski laughed, “I did that for a couple of years, but I was just out in the field with only a couple of other people. I missed interaction, and feeling like my work was helping others. My husband and I decided to pick up and move to Korea. I taught English there for a couple of years, then headed back and started looking for ‘grownup’ jobs.”
Biodrowski found a position at the 4-H center in Gretna. “It was the camp I went to as a kid, so I thought I’d go back because I had all of these wonderful memories there. I figured it would be a nice transition until I could find a real job. But the director I worked with there, Jared Parker, taught me that it was a real, and very valuable job. It was what he had wanted to do since he was a kid, and working and learning with him inspired me to become a professional camp director.”
Biodrowski spent four years at Eastern Nebraska 4-H, growing in her position as program director, before she took on a position at Boys Town. “Working at Boys Town was something my husband and I had always wanted to do, so we did that for about a year,” she said. Biodrowski, however, had found the work that meant the most to her, and soon began looking for a new camp to call home.
“I started looking for a permanent camp position and Easterseals was looking for a camp director. I jumped at the opportunity, and I’m never going to give it up,” Biodrowski said. Six years later, she’s flourishing in the position.
Fun for Everyone
Biodrowski wants to create opportunities for campers of all ages and abilities, saying “My time at camp was so important to me, and I think everyone should have the opportunity. But most of Nebraska’s camps existed before Accessibility Acts were implemented, meaning they aren’t fun or even safe for those with physical, developmental, or behavioral restrictions.”
Most camps are focused on packing every moment of your experience with activities, from sun up to long past dark. Easterseals takes a different approach, and that’s where Biodrowski sees potential blossoming in her campers.
“Our campers have access to all of the activities other camps offer, just with consideration to everyone’s level of ability. But regardless of their ability, if they want to try an activity, we’re going to find a way to make it happen. We still pack the day with adapted horseback riding, swimming, climbing, crafting, but with these gentle transitions between each. The magic of camp is really happening in those moments where we are waiting for one another, connecting, and truly experiencing the day.”
Easterseals accepts the fact that while every mind and body are of value to the world, there are some things that can only be understood and appreciated by those experiencing similar challenges. That’s why the mission to build an environment where campers can connect, create, and help one another is so close to the staff’s heart.
Biodrowski reflects on the experience of a camper who requires crutches to walk, recalling “So much of his life was built around the people he needed nearby to help him, the things he couldn’t do since he needed crutches. He had been reminded of his own limitations every day of his life. He took our leadership training and suddenly he could see all of the ways he was able to help others. All of the things that didn’t disqualify him from being helpful and needed by those around him. He hadn’t known how to be that person before. Knowing how much we all bring to the table makes life better for all of us!”
Biodrowski knows what she brings to the table, but she also knows she’s not creating this camp alone. She credits her entire staff for the joy they bring to each day, and the flexibility their work requires of them.
“The staff are truly the most selfless people I know. They spend their whole summer working long hours in the heat, never complaining, truly happy to do it. They’re not there for themselves. The campers teach my staff how to be more giving and selfless. It gives them grit that they will be able to take with them in their careers, with their own children, as a caregiver for their own parents. This first hand empathy I hope everyone seeks and finds at some point in their lives.”
Tony Bisignano and his son Ryan discovered camp isn’t an escape from reality, but an exercise in being one’s authentic, best self.
“2011 was Ryan’s first year at camp. He was 8, and we finally felt he was ready. We weren’t, but he was!” Tony remembered the trepidation as he said goodbye to his son for the first time. “But it’s not about us. You spend your life as a parent advocating for and nurturing your child, and at some point, you have to accept that they are ready to practice what you’ve been preparing them for.”
Since first learning that his son carries an extra chromosome, Tony has made it his business to create and adapt stepping stones to give his son the fullest, most independent life possible. A week at camp was an opportunity for Tony to let Ryan show how much he was capable of accomplishing.
“We had heard nothing but incredible things about Easterseals, and we knew so many families who had loved their experiences there. Whatever doubts we had about Ryan’s abilities to get by without us holding his hand were gone the moment we picked him up that Friday. He was already ready to go back. He had grown so much in that one week, so much confidence and independence.” Tony beamed.
Tony’s advice to other parents considering sending their children to Easterseals is an ego check. “As a parent, we’re here to support. I don’t ever want to be the one to tell Ryan what he can and can’t do. I want to present him with options, and teach him to look for opportunities. These activities are fun for the campers, but they’re also teaching them to seek their own strengths.”
Improvise, Adapt, Overcome
Biodrowski reflected on the heartache of having to cancel in-person activities last year, and the hope staff felt that by this summer, COVID-19 would be a thing of the past. Instead, she’s preparing for the worst while wishing for the best, saying, “Hopefully the staff will be able to fully vaccinate before camp, as we serve a high-risk population. However, not all of our campers will be eligible or have access before camp starts. We are still problem-solving how to safely offer our in-person programming this summer. We’re looking at smaller groups, planning more family outings and events, and more day-camp programming, and fewer overnights. All able campers will wear masks or face shields, we take safety very seriously.”
In order to successfully offer day camps, Easterseals will partner with other area day camps and deliver services as teams. This will allow the events to be more inclusive for both camps, while increasing the capacity they’re capable of serving. A fun virtual option will also be available to the highest risk campers.
Biodrowski and her team at Easterseals believe there is no setback that can’t be overcome. Their unique skill set enables them to see every challenge as an opportunity to create a safer, stronger, and more inclusive community, come rain, shine, or global pandemic.
To learn more about Biodrowski and Easterseals, or to read camper testimonials, visit easterseals.com/ne.
This article originally appeared in the May issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.