Founded in 1972 in Monticello, Iowa, Camp Courageous serves as a camp for individuals with special needs and of all ages and backgrounds. Today, Camp Courageous consists of nearly 400 acres of land and 33 buildings and serves nearly 10,000 individuals with special needs on an annual basis.
Part of Camp’s recent growth has included the creation of a multipurpose field, a recreational facility that includes various sports opportunities for campers of all abilities. “We have one main little field that we were using for everything from kickball, soccer, slip and slide, and everything in between,” explains Kaite Ryan, assistant program director at Camp Courageous. In 2019, Camp Courageous annexed the United Methodist Camp next door, which was shutting down. The annex gave them the space they needed to create a multipurpose field.
“The first thought was just to put a baseball field out there and make it multipurpose so we could play multiple sports on it,” Kaite says. “We thought, ‘What else can we put over here to make a difference?’” The team brainstormed about volleyball, Pickleball, and a soccer field. “The biggest thing for soccer was just going to be having field area that was a rubberized surface or an acrylic surface that campers could play on and not have any barriers.”
What came next might have been an act of fate for Jeff Pitlik, who Camp Courageous CEO Charlie Becker describes as essentially a full-time Camp Courageous volunteer since his retirement from Rockwell Collins several years ago. “My wife and I were watching TV one night and there was something that said that Marion, Iowa had a Mini-Pitch System® put in by Musco Lighting,” says Jeff.
While he knew of Iowa’s Musco Lighting, Jeff had never heard of a mini-pitch, which was designed by engineers at Musco Lighting and is the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s preferred mini-pitch system. Made of galvanized steel, the mini-pitch comes with lights, lockable storage, built-in goals, and benches to watch play unfold.
Shortly thereafter, Jeff and his wife took the drive to Marion to check it out. “I looked at it and I thought, ‘That’s got some real potential.’ It would be large enough, but yet small enough that those with disabilities don’t have to run the whole court. So, we thought, ‘Wow, that’d be a really cool fit to what we’re trying to do.’”
Jeff brought the idea back to the group and it didn’t take long before the team had agreed that a mini-pitch should be part of Camp’s multipurpose field plans. Thanks to additional funding from Iowa’s Kick It Forward (who also helped fund the mini-pitch project in Marion that first got Jeff’s attention) and Target, everything was falling into place.
“For this project, the three of us met at least once a week (Friday mornings at 7 AM), and there wasn’t a day that went by in between that we weren’t talking on the phone and emailing,” recalls Charlie. “Jeff is super organized and stays to a process that keeps us all moving in the same direction. Kaite is also extraordinary. She brings the enthusiasm and excitement of the campers to the table. She is a go getter and has opened many wonderful doors for Camp.”
“The reason that we really were pushing for the mini-pitch is because it makes sports barrier free for our individuals,” says Kaite. “Meaning there’s not a surface, there’s not something that’s going to stop them from being able to play, which is what Camp Courageous is about: giving individuals opportunities no matter their ability.”
Another key element about the mini-pitch that appealed to the Camp team was the nature of the enclosed system. “We thought, ‘How cool…this means that the ball will always be in play,’” says Kaite. “Sometimes if the ball goes away from our campers when we’re playing, their attention span is gone, and they’ve moved on.
“This will just open our doors so much more to different programming and being able to try soccer where maybe they wouldn’t be able to because they utilize a walker or a wheelchair,” she continues. “And the grass kind of stops them from being able to move as fast as maybe another kid would be able to.”
Six-year-old camper Chance is a goalie and has been playing soccer for five years with Special Olympics. “It’s hard to keep the ball in play on a regular soccer field,” he says. “Grass makes it harder to roll the ball and you can lose it.” He’s most excited about getting to play on the mini-pitch at Camp with friends. “Everyone has different abilities,” he shares, “and everyone has different ways of playing.”
Sean is a counselor at Camp Courageous and also notes the importance of control for campers. “With this mini-pitch, campers can be in control of the ball,” he says. “That element of control is not something that campers necessarily have in other aspects of their lives, which is what’s exciting about the mini-pitch and the opportunity for continuous play.”
While the excitement for the mini-pitch was palpable, bringing the mini-pitch to Camp did not come without a hitch. But the ability of all partners to work together for important change has been a key element of the process.
While the mini-pitch system’s gates are ADA-compliant, they were not accessible for individuals in power wheelchairs due to the width and the larger nature of power wheelchairs, whose wheels curve out at an angle.
So, Camp Courageous worked with engineers at Musco Lighting to adjust the width of the gates to 42 inches to make the entry points more accessible. This new width will also be the standard width for all mini-pitches going forward.
“This project really helped us move that process forward and say, ‘You know what, we want to make this a universal design so that anyone can play,’” says Musco Lighting’s Karen Ventura. “We talk about inclusivity and that includes everyone. This change is really significant.”
“I was extremely impressed with the folks at Musco,” says Charlie. “There were several times they could have said, ‘We can’t do that,’ but instead they greeted our questions and ideas with open arms.”
Kaite is also excited about the new development. “Adjusting the width of the gates will allow our individuals to be able to get in and out independently, which is really important. It’s something that we really try to focus on is making sure that the campers are as independent as possible.”
“It was really great that Musco worked with us in doing that, and they saw the opportunity that was there for other systems,” says Jeff. “We’re really pleased to say that we’re part of recognizing that issue and bringing it forward, and then Musco jumped on it and put it in place.”
Looking forward, it’s safe to say that everyone is excited about using the mini-pitch.
“I think that it’s really cool to get campers out in nature and outside,” Jeff continues. “With COVID and with everything that’s been going on lately…it’s really kind of a safe haven for campers…I believe this is just a perfect opportunity for the campers to experience and enjoy these new activities at Camp Courageous.”
The U.S. Soccer Foundation is working to make soccer everyone’s game. Its goal is to install 1,000 mini-pitches and engage one million children in its soccer programs by 2026 – the year the World Cup comes to North America. To learn more, visit itseveryonesgame.org.