Making the impossible possible: Camp Fish Tales in Pinconning makes dreams a reality

A hidden treasure lays nestled in the woods of Pinconning, waiting for another batch of campers to arrive this summer. Tucked away from the public eye, this expansive 67 ½ acre property boasts nerf gun and archery ranges, a pond, adaptive sports fields, a hammock village, and a rock wall, in addition to the main lodge and cabins, and is one of only a few in the state that caters specifically to special needs campers. 

Camp Fish Tales, located at 2177 E. Erickson Road in Pinconning, is a barrier-free, wheelchair -accessible camp that offers its campers an opportunity to be away from home and independent as they work on a variety of physical, emotional, social, and cognitive skills, according to the camp’s website.

In the summer, Camp Fish Tales offers separate camp weeks for youth and adults.While the current camp was built in 1996, Camp Fish Tales actually got its start as a day camp out of Saginaw Valley State University and Delta College beginning in 1993. Since then, the camp has been fulfilling its mission to provide “a unique and exciting outdoor learning experience where individuals with special needs interact and develop skills that enhance their health, abilities, independence, and quality of life.”

Executive Director Shannon Forshee is eagerly looking forward to the 2021 summer camp season after having to cancel last summer’s programs due to COVID-19. Training for staff is currently underway as they await the newest round of campers’ arrival during the second week of June.

The camp covers more than 67 acres and includes a fishing pond.“We offer week-long summer sessions for 10 weeks out of the year: 3 adult weeks and 3 youth weeks. We also offer respite weekends in the off season. Campers come in on Fridays and leave on Sundays, September through April,” says Forshee, who has served in her current role since 2018.

In 2019, the camp provided a safe place for exploration to 240 campers, both youth and adult. Youth camps host campers ages 7 to 17, while adult camps have seen visitors anywhere from 18 to 87. This season, the camp will host reduced numbers of 20 campers per session, down from the normal 35 to 60 per session.

“The safety of the campers is our number one priority,” Forshee states, and explains that campers will be placed into cohorts as a precautionary measure.

Campers will get a chance to explore the grounds and take part in many fun yet challenging activities, including archery, boating, swimming, fishing, climbing, and playing a variety of sports. In addition to the various outdoor spaces, Forshee says the camp is well equipped for indoor activities, too.

Campers explore the grounds and enjoy traditional summer camp activities including archery, boating, swimming, fishing, climbing, and sports.“We have a main lodge where campers have a recreation room, craft room, and mess hall. We have three main cabins that have a capacity of 18 to 24 campers, as well as a nurse’s station and Camp Director cabin. We also have a sensory building which was gifted to us by the Bay (Area Chamber of Commerce) Leadership Class of 2018.”

Equally important to the opportunities afforded to campers, says Forshee, these camps provide respite and renewal to caregivers who are often working around the clock to care for their loved ones.

 “We are an amazing resource for not only our campers but the caregivers as well. The campers create memories while the caregivers get a much needed reprieve. They may drop campers off and head up north for a break, or they may simply go grocery shopping.”

Camper activities include climbing a rock wall.While Forshee is the only full-time employee, she is assisted by 20 seasonal staff members, including a registered nurse, cook, camp director, program lead, and various volunteers, all of which are currently receiving the 50 hours of training and team-building necessary to work with campers who have a wide range of special needs, including tracheotomies, quadriplegics, autism spectrum, down syndrome, physical and cognitive impairments, and even dementia and brain injuries, says Forshee.

Camp Fish Tales typically not only meets but exceeds the state-required camper to counselor ratio, a feat that has been made challenging this year as the state is just beginning to lighten some of the pandemic-era regulations and restrictions. 

“We staff according to quality of care, not the state’s recommendations. The state recommends 3:1, but we actually do better than that. We do 1:1 for a camper requiring full care. However, it’s been difficult to staff this year. We just haven’t had the applications like we normally do. Job fairs were all virtual, which was a difficult change,” says Forshee.

The camp offers equipment to allow people of all different abilities to enjoy activities. In addition, staff are trained to work with a wide people from a wide of range of physical and cognitive abilities.Campers are leveled based on their independence and needs, which then determines the necessary staffing. Forshee explains, “Level 1 may need a few verbal reminders but is pretty independent. A level 2 may need help dressing or brushing their teeth. A level 3 may be a quadriplegic who needs full care. Then we staff according to their levels.” 

While campers pay a tuition to attend based on their level, additional funding is needed to keep the camp up and running, which typically comes from grants, donors, and property rental. Forshee says these rentals provide an important source of revenue.

“Organizations like Special Olympics and Her Pride Her Power, a girls’ self-confidence camp, have rented our camp. McLaren has their grief camp here. We also do rentals for corporate events, weddings, graduation parties, baby showers, and all of that revenue goes directly back to our campers.”  

Executive Director Shannon ForsheeCamp Fish Tales also has an endowment fund through the Bay Area Community Foundation, which it hopes to grow over the coming years in order to be able to provide scholarships and to ensure that people can enjoy coming to Camp Fish Tales for years to come.

Camp Fish Tales is always looking for community help, whether that be in the form of volunteerism or donations.

“We always have a wish list on our website, www.campfishtales.org. When the camp was built there was minimal storage. We would love to have a smaller shed built to put tables/chairs in and get them removed from the bathroom areas in the main lodge. We also are in need of chairs,” Forshee says. 

Forshee says that the impact of the camp on campers cannot be underestimated.

The campground includes three cabins as well as a main lodge. Inside the main lodge are a recreation room, craft room, and mess hall.“We do so many amazing things for kids and adults with special needs. They make forever friendships here and create memories that last a lifetime. Nothing compares to hearing them freely say, ‘This is the BEST, I love you!’ Seeing a camper with limited use of arms and legs climb a rock wall and hit that buzzer at the top is unparalleled. From the camper’s huge smile to the cheers below from the other campers, there is no place like Camp Fish Tales!”