GRAND CHUTE, Wis. — From the moment they check-in to the SibDays of Summer day camp at Plamann Park in Grand Chute, children ages 6 through 12 are surrounded by people who understand them.
"It makes me happy that they have a camp about how it's OK to have siblings with disabilities." said Kharis Mann.
The 10-year-old said, while at camp with more than 50 kids just like her, she feels accepted.
"Normally if I'm talking to a new friend, I'd be like, 'Oh yeah my brother has autism,' and they kind of inch away a little bit," she explained.
The camp is one of many programs put on by WisconSibs that help connect siblings with resources for their lifelong journey with their brothers and sisters with special needs.
During SibDays of Summer, the children find a safe place to share the positives and challenges of having a sibling with disabilities. Through sharing stories, they also learn new techniques to better understand and cope with the wide range of emotions they face.
"I was really resentful of the fact that I wouldn't have a normal sister, and we wouldn't get to talk about boys or paint our nails or all this stuff," Catriona Ellis explained.
Her sister, Addie has Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome. She's non-verbal and has physical limitations. Ellis said the skills she learned through WisconSibs programs helped her build a strong, loving relationship with Addie.
"Seeing other people with their siblings inspired me to actually make an effort with her and get to know her, because I think she's one of the kindest and smartest people on this planet."
Now, the UW-Oshkosh junior is helping the younger generation by serving as a counselor at the camp.
"I love that I get to show kids that they're not alone," Ellis said
"Siblings may not get the attention that they otherwise would because their sibling with a disability requires a lot of resources, a lot of time, a lot of worry," said WisconSibs Executive Director Harriet Redman.
Redman started WisconSibs 21 years ago when she discovered there was no peer support network for her daughter, who had a brother born with a severe disability.
"Some of these kids are actually going to be their caregivers for their brothers and sisters. Some are going to be the guardians for their brothers and sisters, and studies have shown that these kinds of programs, the people who participate, feel better prepared to do that," Redman said.
Character-building skits during camp discuss how to overcome communication barriers, but Redman also makes sure the children just have fun.
"Which is a great respite for them, right here in the middle of the summer, they need a little time out from life," Redman said.
The theme of this year's camp is "The Wonderful World of Siblings," which will feature Disney-inspired activities. During the week, campers will do arts and crafts, go swimming and hiking, play games and enjoy bonding activities with their siblings who are attending a different camp nearby.
Ellis said her experience with the organization has changed her life.
"I would not be who I am, or as happy as I am, without WisconSibs."
The nonprofit supports siblings of those with disabilities through adulthood with a wide variety of programs that include peer support, education and networking opportunities, leadership development, advocacy and more.
Click here for more information.