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Camp Esquagama hosts first ever day camp for children with autism

Camp Esquagama has been a summer camp tradition for more than 85 years. Located on Lake Esquagama near Biwabik, it began as a 4-H camp and has welcomed generations of campers ever since.


“Giving kids time to be kids” has long been the motto for Camp Esquagama, and this has now become true even for kids with autism or other forms of neurodivergence. Last week, the camp hosted its first ever day camp with specially designed programs for youth who otherwise may not be able to enjoy a summer camp experience.

The new camp is called the Explorer’s Program. Camp Esquagama welcomed 18 young people, ages 8-17, for the day camp, which ran July 5-7.

Camp leaders have been working with families since last winter to plan programming that meets the needs of these campers while ensuring a fun experience. The camp hosted an open house for families to tour together on Monday to help campers familiarize themselves with staff and the facilities. The camp’s international counselors are matched with students on a one-to-one basis this week, with an additional five special educations teachers brought in to assist as needed.

“When I registered, I wasn’t fully committed,” said Jill Oja, whose three sons attended the camp. “But then, Robert, the camp director called me to inquire about the boys’ needs. The questions he asked assured me he was knowledgeable, willing to learn, and would make sure the camp counselors would be properly trained and prepared. I was still hesitant at first and imagined getting a phone call soon after dropping them off to come pick them up. Not everyone has the ability to work with special needs children and it is heartbreaking and devastating when things don’t work out. To my delight this experience was different.”

Campers were able to enjoy swimming, kayaking and many other traditional camp activities; and given daily options to select based on their interests, including arts and crafts, sling shots, archery, climbing wall and more. The canteen store has been specially stocked with snack options this week based on parent recommendations.

“It’s hard to put into words what this camp means to us,” said Jill Devich, whose son participated in the camp. “When we found out Ian had autism, we as parents just wanted him to experience all the things kids do like just playing outside and being a kid. Until this, he wasn’t able to participate in most kids activities due to the fact that he needs some supervision and support. This camp allows the kids to experience many of these activities in a fun and safe environment. There is nothing else like this near the Range or Duluth.”

“We are excited to finally make this day camp a reality,” said Camp Director Robert Johnson. “We’ve heard from families about the lack of camp options for their kids, and so have worked hard with them to adapt our programs in a way that will provide a close to normal camp experience. We’re intentionally starting small this year, but see a lot of potential to serve kids with sensory sensitivity and social and communication challenges in a very positive way.”

“Starting this camp is such a positive thing for the area as it provides the same kinds of experiences that all kids can have access to,” said Beth Chapdelaine, who works in special education and was honored to help at the camp. “To see more acceptance and support in our schools and community for all has special meaning for me. I have always been an advocate for inclusion so that all people could have the same kinds of opportunities, with adaptations if necessary to meet their needs.”

Camp Esquagama has been a summer camp tradition for more than 85 years. Located on Lake Esquagama near Biwabik, it began as a 4-H camp and has welcomed generations of campers ever since. Significant restoration efforts over the last decade have expanded the camp’s offering to include day camps, residential camps, counselor internships, specialty camps for adults during the off-season, and more.

To learn more about Camp Esquagama, visit or call 218-865-6589.