​Stranded in the Woods During a Week of Rain: What I Learned from Running a Survival and Leadership Camp for Girls with Disabilities

Posted by Stephanie Woodward in Life After Paralysis on October 01, 2021 # Lifestyle

Group picture of all girls and women at EmpowHer Camp Last year we launched Disability EmpowHer Network, an organization dedicated to empowering girls and women with disabilities to live to their fullest potential and have the confidence to lead. Our first big program would be EmpowHer Camp, a multi-stage skill-building, empowerment, and mentoring program that brings a diverse group of girls with disabilities (ages 13 -17) to camp with successful disabled women mentors in the Adirondacks for one week to learn about disaster preparedness and basic survival skills, while also developing independent living and leadership skills. The next summer, the girls reunite in Washington, D.C., to explore how they have grown as leaders. During the year between the first trip and the reunion trip, the girls create a yearlong local project involving inclusive disaster strategies.

It sounds good on paper, right? But we had never actually run the program before this year, and I’ll admit I was nervous! We somehow got nine incredible women with disabilities to agree to commit to this yearlong program – and commit to mentoring nine amazing girls with disabilities from across the country! Now it was time to actually start the program. We implemented strict COVID precaution requirements to ensure we were as safe as possible, and then we crossed our fingers for a successful program.

With that, in mid-August, we headed to John Dillon Park – a fully accessible wilderness facility in the Adirondacks. We had no cellphone service, no wifi, and a group of teenage girls! Here are a few things I learned from the experience:

  • We are all stronger and more resilient than I thought
  • Mentors grew just as much as the campers
  • Parents were deeply impacted by their daughter’s participation in EmpowHer Camp

Going into EmpowHer Camp, I knew that girls and women with disabilities were strong and resilient, but I didn’t fully comprehend just how strong and resilient we are! Each person went through the stress of traveling during the pandemic to get to camp. Then we all gave up the comforts of electricity, indoor plumbing, comfy beds, and even having four walls around us when we slept! That, in and of itself, was a huge feat. But we didn’t stop there! Everyone learned how to make a fire and keep it going – even in torrential rain! Did I mention that we had flood advisory rain for three days straight?!! That’s right! Not only did we survive in the wilderness for a week, but we did it in downpouring rain.

Girls and women sit on a porch and smile at the camera

We had wheelchairs run out of batteries, girls fell down, fires went out (while we were cooking on them!), plans kept changing based on the weather, and we had incredibly long and soggy days – but we worked through it all together! We brainstormed solutions and worked as a team when our assistive technology wasn’t doing what we wanted it to do, we got back up after we fell, we restarted fires over and over, we learned to be flexible when schedules changed, and we got comfortable being wet most of the time. Most of all, we had a ton of fun while doing all of this!

I was especially moved by each girl supporting one another. They learned about interdependence and how each of them could contribute to making EmpowHer Camp great for themselves and for one another.

We started EmpowHer Camp with the goal of helping young women with disabilities grow into confident leaders. I knew that the mentors would be impacted in some way by EmpowHer Camp, but I didn’t realize that EmpowHer Camp would be just as meaningful for them as it was for our campers.

We selected nine successful disabled women to be mentors. Each of these women are accomplished leaders. I did not realize that even accomplished leaders had room for so much growth. Here is what some of the mentors told me about what they took away from being a part of EmpowHer Camp:

“Not only have I learned that I can be pushed to my mental and physical breaking point, and still keep going for people I care about, but I have learned how to more effectively ask for help, take breaks when I need (still working on the guilt part there, but I’m working on it), and to stop saying “sorry” for things that I have no need to be sorry about.”

“Something I learned that was valuable was different learning styles and communication styles. I learned that I needed to convey ideas and instruction in a way that I might not naturally do. It forces creativity but I feel this improves me as a leader as it ensures I'm catering to others in a way that allows them to feel comfortable, safe, and do things in a way that best fits them.”

“EmpowHer Camp helped improve my confidence unexpectedly. I accomplished things I did not know I could do and EmpowHer Camp was a safe place to try new things and not fear of failure or judgement.”

I am still flabbergasted that women that I profoundly respect were able to gain so much from being mentors with our EmpowHer Camp program.

Girls work together to build a shower chairGoing into EmpowHer Camp, I was hopeful that by the end of the year the parents and families of our campers would be impacted in positive ways by the girls growing and becoming more confident. I never expected that parents and families would be impacted by just the first week of EmpowHer Camp! I thought it would take months, or even the whole year, for them to be affected, but that isn’t the case. Here is what a few parents and family members have already told us:

“Dropping her off, and having you reiterate that she will only get help if she requests it, was also a reminder for me that as her mom, I need to follow that same rule.”

“She had a GREAT time & is willing to try more with us, which is huge!”

“When she is explaining something to us, she is using different words and is more clear. She seems even more confident than before.”

“I got lost driving the other day. My sister used her skills learned at camp to help me out and to keep me calm when I didn’t know where I was. She asked me what landmarks were around me etc.”

“Thank you to all the mentors & girls who participated! This was an amazing experience for my daughter! We had the most beautiful and rich conversations for 3 hours!”

The best part of all? We’re only just beginning! Our week of camping in the Adirondacks kicked off our yearlong EmpowHer Camp program. Now the girls are each paired with a mentor to work with for an entire year. They’ll work together on their projects, talk about life, and have lots of laughs. Then we’ll reunite in Washington, D.C. in July of 2022 to present projects, talk with Congress, meet with national leaders, and graduate from EmpowHer Camp. I cannot wait to see how much we all grow over the next year!

Stephanie Woodward is an attorney and Executive Director of Disability EmpowHer Network. Stephanie is passionate about seeking justice for marginalized communities - and has an arrest record to show for it. As a proud disabled woman and civil rights activist, Stephanie is committed to bringing more women and girls with disabilities to the forefront through mentoring and activism.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.