AIKEN, S.C. – Maria Potter has cerebral palsy but that has not prevented her from enjoying a typical summer outdoors experience at Camp Joy, a Christian-based summer camp for teenagers and adults with intellectual disabilities at Gravatt Camp and Conference Center.

Potter, 41, is going to camp for the fourth time this summer, where she has become a bit of a celebrity there now. She is featured on the cover of the camp’s brochure with her boyfriend, Willy Carter, also a camper.

“At Camp Joy, people do not see us as having a disability,” Potter said. “It’s like our disabilities are just wiped away and we’re just normal people. It’s nice to feel like a normal person in society where nobody judges or nobody looks down on you because Jesus did not judge,” said Potter.

Although wheelchair bound, Potter is an independent person who works at a coffee shop and lives with her boyfriend.  The camp experience has strengthened her independence. 

“It has really strengthened me as a person. I really enjoy spreading the word of Jesus and what being a Christian is all about,” said Potter.

On February 20, the Capital City Club in downtown Columbia held a fundraiser for the camp called Cocktails that Care. For a $10 donation, guests enjoyed drinks and hors d’oeuvres.

Beth Tuten, co-director of Camp Joy at Camp Gravatt,  helped bring the camp to South Carolina. It originally started in North Carolina where she and her family brought horses for the campers to ride when she was only 13. She fell in love with the atmosphere and helping others with special needs. Once she was old enough to become a counselor, she was there for as long as they would let her be. As she got older, she decided to start a career in special education.

“It kind of set my life on a path. I became a special education teacher, and then, I wanted my students to have a Camp Joy to go to. The Camp Joy in North Carolina was full and had a waiting list of over 100 campers. And so, we approached the leaders there and asked if we could open a camp here in South Carolina, and they were very supportive,” said Tuten.

There are very few places where teenagers and adults with disabilities can get this kind of sleepover experience away from their parents. To ensure that all campers get the attention they deserve, there is a one-to-one camper/counselor system, and if they are in a wheelchair they get two counselors.

Hailey Martin has been a counselor since the first Camp Joy South Carolina in 2013. It was her first exposure to people with special needs, and she fell in love with everything about it. She is now in her first year of teaching special education.

Many of the counselors, like Martin, keep in touch and see the campers throughout the year.

“I have all of their numbers. They text, call me all the time asking me to hang out, so I got over to their house, I’ll take them out and do stuff. It’s a connection that lasts a lifetime not just one summer,” said Martin.

Camp Joy has locations in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida and will soon open a location in Virginia. In South Carolina, there are two sessions the last two full weeks in June. If you are interested in donating, volunteering, or signing up to be a camper, visit their website at CampJoySC.com

Maria Potter speaking about Camp Joy at her home.

Willy Carter posing for a photo at the home he shares with Maria Potter.

The current Camp Joy pamphlet featuring Maria Potter front and center and boyfriend, Willy Carter, behind her at Camp Joy SC 2018.

Co-director and co-founder of Camp Joy SC, Beth Tuten, wanted to start a camp in South Carolina after volunteering at the North Carolina location for years.