As the sun descends on a summer evening, staining the sky pink and purple, a crowd gathers near a large grove of trees. A makeshift curtain separates the audience from the performers, and the cast—dressed as clowns, ballerinas and ringmasters—begins to take its place in the grassy open-air theater as the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman fills the night: “I am not a stranger to the dark. ‘Hide away,’ they say. ‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts.’ I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars. ‘Run away,’ they say. ‘No one will love you as you are.’”
Neither the performers nor their audience believe those words. Instead, they embrace the chorus: “But I won’t let them break me down to dust. I know that there’s a place for us, for we are glorious … I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I’m meant to be, this is me. Look out ’cause here I come, and I’m marching on to the beat I drum. I’m not scared to be seen, I make not apologies, this is me.”
Tears flow in the audience, and they continue for the next two hours as the cast unveils a circus of songs and skits. It’s the final night of Bournelyf Special Camp in West Chester, and the cast members—all with special needs—have been waiting for the night they can shout, “This is me!”
A nonprofit founded nearly 40 years ago, Bournelyf provides transformative experiences for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. While primarily a summer day camp for ages 8 and up, it also offers activities throughout the year, including a vacation experience for alumni campers. The program includes fellowship activities, outdoor games, swimming, canoeing, and excursions like horseback riding, shopping and outings to a local farm or a library. Activities are centered on Bournelyf’s mission to help those with special needs build confidence, improve social, physical and communication skills, and see themselves as important members of society.
“Morning Circle” time begins each day at Bournelyf. There, campers share something with the group, select a clip from a favorite song and sometimes dance. In such a welcoming environment, most join in. “These campers truly represent what unconditional love is,” says executive director Anne Catlin.
That nurturing environment has campers and staff coming back year after year. “We call ourselves lifers,” says Catlin, who’s been with Bournelyf for 28 years. “We’re a family here—and we affectionately say Bournelyf is the place where friends become family.”
Nowhere is that unconditional love more palpable than at the camp’s summer finale under the fading sun.