EDITOR’S NOTE: Students from the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism wrote about people and places around Denton County as part of their spring coursework.
Four firefighters, decked out in swim trunks, hoist Arion Wade slowly up two flights of metal stairs and then help him into the white tube of the water slide before them.
As the sun glints off of the blue water of the large pool, Wade and one of the firefighters, drenched in sunshine and smiles, approach the end of the tube. Men wait in the foamy, churning water at the tube’s end, and with one final splash, they slide into the water.
Wade has a physical disability that requires him to use a wheelchair. In his late 20s, it was his first time to ride a water slide — an opportunity made possible at a camp session offered by the nonprofit organization known as Camp Craig Allen.
Craig Allen Cruzan was born Jan. 11, 1967. At age 5, Cruzan was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy; by age 10 he was in a wheelchair. For 15 years he attended a camp every summer for children with muscular dystrophy. Despite a life expectancy into his late teens, Cruzan lived to age 22 and passed away on June 12, 1989, of congestive heart failure.
“I always say that Craig died of a broken camp heart,” said his sister, Dawn Cruzan Fournier. “[That’s] because he died on a Monday, the first day he could not go to camp.” He was 22 and had just passed the cutoff age to be eligible for the camp, she said.
Cruzan’s experience is common among the physically disabled community, Fournier said. Because of technological developments, those with disabilities are living longer. As a result, once they reach young adulthood, they are turned away from the camps that had once provided them with a place where they could be embraced for who they are.
Determined to see that others do not have to face what her brother endured, Fournier founded Camp Craig Allen five years ago. The organization hopes to establish a barrier-free camp for adults with any type of physical disability.
A small office building off U.S. Highway 377 near Aubrey is the headquarters of the organization.
In the building’s main office, snapshots of men and women adorn the walls. One of the campers has his hockey stick attached to his wheelchair; beach towels lay draped across empty wheelchairs next to the pool. Each of the images depicts scenes from the organization’s first camp session — the same session where Wade rode his first water slide.
Skylar Conover, an intern with the camp, was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy in 2005 when she was a freshman in high school, and two years later began using a wheelchair.
“It was very difficult to adjust because I felt like I was alone,” Conover said. “Then once camp was introduced to me, I went to muscular dystrophy camp. It kind of gave me a sense of belonging that I hadn’t felt after I was diagnosed because everyone knew what I was going through.”
However, the camp Conover attended lowered its age limit, restricting those older than 18 from attending. Because of this, Conover stresses the fact that Camp Craig Allen will have no age limit.
“Camp gives people the chance just to know that there are more positive people out there that want to live life instead of people telling them that because they are in a wheelchair, they can’t do this or they can’t do that,” Conover said. “At camp we tell them you can do this. It gives them a more positive outlook to keep going, to keep fighting and keep living life.”
One out of every five Americans is disabled, according to U.S. Census data. Dallas has the second-highest number of residents with physical disabilities in Texas, yet it has the least amount of resources, Fournier said.
“Even now, 22 years later, with all the laws and the handicap parking and those things, it’s still a very difficult world for a disabled person to live in,” Fournier said. “We have all of these things that keep us living longer, but Camp Craig Allen has a strong feeling … about the quality of life, especially for those with physical disabilities.”
Through the help of volunteers, corporate sponsors and individual donations, Camp Craig Allen’s hope is to build a camp in the North Texas area and provide a barrier-free environment for those in the physically disabled community, Fournier said.
The facility will include things such as flush surfaces, an absence of stairs, and wider doorways. These obstacles as well as others often go unnoticed by those unfamiliar with people with physical disabilities, said Amanda Hall, marketing director for Camp Craig Allen. Even using the restroom at a restaurant can be challenging since many establishments do not meet proper Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, she said.
“They want to go out and be productive members of society and they are not being provided with the right facilities,” Hall said. “That’s something we really strive to do is break down those barriers.”
Cruzan had the idea for such a barrier-free camp at age 13. Since his passing, Fournier has made it her life’s mission to ensure that his dream is realized.
“We will be a place where you can physically be embraced,” Fournier said. “It’s about people and it’s a path that God blessed me to be on. I fully have 100 percent faith that this is my purpose in life.”
Fournier began advocating for Cruzan at a young age. Before he began using a wheelchair, she can remember standing up for him on the playground when the other children would make fun of the way he was walking.
“It was very difficult, because to me my brother was my hero,” she said. “I knew he had physical issues because he was falling. I had to be the sister that picked him up.”
This continued up into their high school years. Attending high school in the small town of Magnolia, life was sometimes difficult for Cruzan.
“We weren’t accepted because people didn’t know how to react,” she said. “They didn’t know what he could do. They saw the wheelchair not the person.”
Cruzan and Fournier’s father left when he was diagnosed, something Fournier said is common among families who have children with physical disabilities. She said that because her mom worked several jobs and attended night school, she served as Cruzan’s baby sitter, caregiver and his physical therapist. She was responsible for stretching him, turning him over and getting him off the floor.
Despite her brother’s physical limitations, Cruzan said they were both passionately involved in being teenagers. They went to parties, school dances and football games.
“Society thought that disabled people should not be seen and just live in group homes and be forgotten about,” Fournier said. “I just did not want to keep Craig from living life to the fullest.”
Camp Craig Allen held its first session in June 2011 and will have 11 camp sessions this year. The facility the organization is using is not owned by the group and has many barrier restrictions. However, Fournier said it is a big step in achieving their end goal of owning and operating their own barrier-free facility that is focused on changing mind-sets, increasing quality of life and touching people’s hearts.
“Craig did live; he lived for that one week at camp,” Fournier said. “That was what kept him going.”