As Laura Terry remembers it, her first visit to Camp Aldersgate in Little Rock, Arkansas, in August 2001 was an experience that instantly knocked her life onto a different course. Martha Jane Murray, a Little Rock architect who was the president of Camp Aldersgate’s board of directors at the time, had invited Terry, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, to the camp to attend a design charette. The idea was to create a program that would put architecture students to work designing and building new facilities at the camp, which offers an eight-week session each summer for children with physical and developmental disabilities. "There’s no way that I could not have been involved," Terry says, recalling her first glimpse of campers shooting through the trees on a zip line, giddily oblivious to their physical limitations. "I felt an obligation to be involved after being here. If I didn’t pursue it, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life."
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Taking a cue from Auburn University’s Rural Studio, where she had trained by building houses in the impoverished Alabama countryside, Terry and eight of her students installed themselves at Camp Aldersgate’s 120-acre campus at the west end of Little Rock in the summer of 2002. The camp had added archery to its program the year before, but the facility that had been hastily constructed for the sport was not set up to easily accommodate children of different ages and abilities. Using a $20,000 grant from the Arkansas Contractors Licensing Board, the students designed and built a 700-square-foot archery pavilion in a clearing amid the camp’s pine, oak, and hickory trees. A trip to the local salvage yard yielded a pair of old bicycles, a basketball backboard, and the lid from the trunk of an old Volkswagen Fox, which the students fashioned into shooting platforms that can be adjusted to any child’s height. A sloped corrugated roof was erected to shield the area from the unforgiving Arkansas summer sun.
The camp’s administrators were initially wary of having a group of college students working among the campers for weeks at a time at the height of the summer session. "For us it was sensitive," says Sarah C. Wacaster, the camp’s executive director. "It was something new that we had never really thought of doing before."
But the archery pavilion was a hit with the campers and talk quickly turned to Terry’s next project. The following summer, armed with a $14,000 grant from the University of Arkansas Women’s Giving Circle and $7,000 that was left over from the archery pavilion, Terry and her students got to work on an ambitious plan to design and build a 22-foot-high tree house for the camp. It wasn’t easy. It rained for most of June 2003, delaying the start of construction for a month. When the project ran about $6,000 over budget, Terry charged the difference to her credit card. At the end of 12 weeks of construction, the tree house was completed and connected to a dam on the banks of the camp’s lake by a 42-foot-long wheelchair-accessible bridge.
Terry returned to the camp in 2005 with a new group of students to tackle a simpler project. Aldersgate’s amphitheater was not fully accessible—the layout forced campers in wheelchairs to cluster at the front, away from their peers. In a month, Terry’s students designed and built a new amphitheater on the banks of the lake. The focal point is a 300-square-foot accessible stage, made of cedar. The concrete benches, each embossed with imprints of leaves from the site, are spaced so campers in wheelchairs can sit wherever they choose.
Though funding didn’t come through in 2006, Terry says she’d like to return to Aldersgate next summer to build several new accessible picnic tables. Terry and Wacaster are eager to maintain the relationship, which has given the camp three popular features while providing the architecture students hands-on experience.
"We started off a little skeptical, wondering what this might entail," Wacaster says. "But now we just know that we’ll be blessed to have these projects. We know that [Terry] is mindful of our needs more than anything."