CLARKSVILLE, Ohio - An accomplished gymnast, Natasha Lewis readily flips around the uneven bars and tumbles gracefully across the floor. She also swims competitively and plays the trombone. Still, the Hilliard 11-year-old can't help feeling a little different from her peers - notably, when she switches between prosthetics during gymnastic events or when she explains to a curious passer-by that she was born without a left arm.
CLARKSVILLE, Ohio — An accomplished gymnast, Natasha Lewis readily flips around the uneven bars and tumbles gracefully across the floor.
She also swims competitively and plays the trombone.
Still, the Hilliard 11-year-old can’t help feeling a little different from her peers — notably, when she switches between prosthetics during gymnastic events or when she explains to a curious passer-by that she was born without a left arm.
Such a feeling, though, has subsided since Saturday, when she arrived at the Paddy Rossbach Youth Camp near Clarksville — conducted at the site known as Camp Joy, about 70 miles southwest of Columbus.
“It’s a camp for all amputees,” said Natasha, in her second summer there.“You get to do really cool stuff with other amputees.”
Through midday Wednesday, 88 children from throughout the country — with 11 others, besides Natasha, from Ohio — are savoring the thrills of canoeing, zip-lining, singing and other activities amid group sessions about caring for prosthetics and responding to bullying.
The overnight camp, founded in 2000 by the Amputee Coalition of Virginia and named in honor of a coalition president, is free for ages 10 to 17.All costs are covered by donations and the coalition.
Although more than 70,000 children in the United States have an amputation, according to the coalition, many of the campers represent the only such child at a school or in a hometown.
Which explains why the five-day camp provides a haven of sorts: There, no one stares, no one poses questions, and no one asks to touch a prosthetic.
“You’re not the oddball,” said 17-year-old Brooke Ames, a first-year counselor from London, Ohio, who attended as a camper for six years.
“This is normal.”
Indeed, the camp on Sunday afternoon exuded normalcy.
“Alex! Tyler! Come on, we’re playing kickball!” shouted 11-year-old Theo Hardesty, encouraging the other boys to join him on the kickball diamond. “I’m kicking first!”
After a short kick toward the pitcher, Theo ran to first base as fast as his dual prosthetic legs could carry him while his teammates chanted “Jo-ey! Vot-to!” — a nod to the T-shirt he wore bearing the name of the Cincinnati Reds first baseman.
Theo was born without tibias.
Overall, the physical abilities of the campers vary widely.
“Some of the kids run like cheetahs; others have a hard time,” said Marshall Cohen, chairman of the coalition board.
The campers help one another as needed — with, say, the buckling of a life jacket or a steady hand for climbing stairs — and inspire their peers to try new pursuits.
“We don’t allow parents to come to camp,” said Mary Beth Gibson, marketing director for the coalition.“We want them (the children) to take on new challenges and be independent.”
Surveys show that attendees leave with increased confidence, Gibson said, and all of them report afterward that they felt good about themselves during the camp.
Regardless of the disability, campers are expected to take part in all activities, with counselors tailoring them to abilities and urging each child to push his or her limitations.
“They are doing things they never thought they could do,” said Cohen, an amputee himself. “On the ropes course, you see kids 50 feet in the air with no arms.”
When her turn arrived, Julia Hurst of Newark could hardly wait to swing on ropes and climb on walls.
The 10-year-old knew, after all, that her new friends would cheer her from the ground.
“I met a lot of people who I didn’t think I would meet,” said Julia, a camp rookie born without a right leg. “I don’t know a lot of people who have a peg leg or an amputated arm.”
The fifth-grader-to-be at Licking Valley Elementary School in Newark also enjoyed “sitting volleyball,” taught by four U.S. Paralympic athletes.
She and Natasha — a seventh-grader at Hilliard Memorial Middle School — hit it off at the camp, teaming to play hopscotch and write their names in chalk.
Sierra Younger, a counselor-in-training from Apple Valley, Minn., who was born without part of her left leg, credits the camp with improving her grades and her attitude.
“It gave me confidence and self-worth,” said Younger, 17. “It brought me back to the person I know I am.”
The upbeat mood makes campers feel comfortable in their own skin.
On Sunday afternoon, a range of prosthetics — some colorfully eye-catching — lined the pool edges as campers relished time in the water.
“It helps seeing the different types and how people deal with them,” said Natasha, whose prosthetic arm is green and pink with black zebra stripes.
Paul McCaffrey, a prosthetist from the Cleveland area, donated his services to the camp for a few days to help with any prosthetic problems.
Marco Robledo, a veteran who lost an arm and a leg in a 2007 roadside bombing in Iraq, filled the role of a counselor, hoping to inspire campers with his story.
Instead, he said, they left their collective mark on him.
“I am in awe of how mature these kids are — how strong they are.”