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Trailways Camp celebrates adults with special needs; reunion of campers is April 9 at the Community House

By Staff | Mar 30, 2016

Group Photo on the new ADA accessible fishing pier at Riverside Retreat Center. PHOTO PROVIDED

There are many special days throughout the year people celebrate such as Christmas, Easter and Halloween.

But a person’s birthday is one such occasion which sticks out and is especially unique to that one individual.

For brothers Robert and Benjamin Miller, their birthdays were the highlight of the year and their parents, Sharon and Jerry, made sure it was an elite occasion.

“For our two sons, their birthdays were big,” Sharon said. “So Jerry and I thought what could we do to bring everyone together for their birthdays?”

Robert and Benjamin were both born with a rare disorder named Neonatal Adrenal Leukodystry (NALD), which requires special care from their parents throughout their lives.

Brothers Rob and Benjamin Miller in 1997. The Third Annual “I am Special” Trailways Camper Reunion will be held Saturday, April 9, at the Sanibel Community House, with 300 special needs adults, family members and caregivers attending the event. PHOTO PROVIDED

Doctors didn’t think either Miller brother would survive long with NALD, but Robert and Benjamin overcame the odds and lived long, fruitful lives.

Robert unfortunately did pass away in the fall of 2005, while Benjamin is a well-liked resident of Sanibel. Benjamin is one of the oldest known living adults with NALD and enjoys a peaceful life working at the Sanibel Goodwill and making his weekly rounds to local Lion’s Club meetings with Jerry and attends breakfast events at his church.

He can be seen walking the shared-use paths, along with his devoted caregiver, Annie Williams. Benjamin is also a CHR housing participant and lives in a unit located on Mahogany Way.

“Ben is very socialable on the island and many people know him,” Sharon said. “The employees at Bailey’s just love Benjamin when he comes in and help him gather his items on his list. Jerry and I made it a point to provide both Robert and Benjamin an active life.”

Benjamin has overcome many challenges, including his blindness the last two years caused by NALD. Goodwill has set up a special workstation for Benjamin so he could keep his job and stay active.

Benjamin Miller catches a fish with the help of his caregiver Annie Williams during a Trailways Camp. PHOTO PROVIDED

But it’s that once-a-year birthday in which Benjamin anticipates, mostly due to the Trailways Camp, which his parents started and currently operate at the Riverside Retreat Center in LaBelle near the Caloosahatchee River.

The camping experiences the Millers wanted to offer to special needs adults blossomed after Robert’s passing in 2005.

“Robert truly enjoyed the time he spent attending camp as a child and young adult,” Sharon said. “We wanted to carry that on. Every story begins with your story.”

Since moving to Sanibel, the Millers have hosted 10 camps and to celebrate the campers who have attended, the couple put on a reunion day entitle “I Am Special”.

This year’s reunion will be Saturday, April 9, at the Sanibel Community House, where over 300 adults with special needs, family members and caregivers, along with community dignitaries and volunteers, will be treated to games, prizes, food and day’s worth of companionship and birthday celebrations.

(L to R) Sharon Miller, Ella Beuning (granddaughter), Kristina Beuning (daughter), Jerry Miller at February 2016 camp. PHOTO PROVIDED

Captiva Chapel By the Sea will be the co-host for the event and has generous in-kind donations from Sanibel businesses make the day a community-owned one.

“This event honors the lives of our sons Robert and Benjamin, without whose inspiration the joy we see on the faces, and the laughter we hear in the air, would not have been possible,” Sharon said. “We honor these special adults, their families and caregivers and join in their celebration of support and connection to their communities.”

The history of the “I Am Special” event dates back to 2007 when the Millers lived in Central Texas. What resulted was an annual camper reunion event.

After moving to Sanibel in 2011, the Millers decided to start the camping experience in SW Florida and name the initiative the Robert V. Miller Fund. The Riverside Retreat was chosen as a host site, while Goodwill Industries Southwest Florida, Inc. became partners in the venture.

Since October of 2012, there have been 10 successful overnight camps held for special needs adults over the age of 18. The experiences during camp enables the campers, parents and caregivers a chance to relax and have fun.

Benjamin Miller with caregiver Annie Williams, enjoy music and scarves at Trailways Camp campfire time. PHOTO PROVIDED

“We decided to focus on the special needs adult, because they get forgotten when they leave school,” Sharon said. “We want them to be active.”

Acceptance to the camps are not based on diagnosis or types of disabilities/special needs.

Each camp can have a theme, such as February’s “love” one. Activities include fishing, swimming, hiking, hayrides, campfires, canoeing, paddle boating, arts and crafts, just to name a few.

There is a capacity of 20 campers per camp from the three surrounding counties of Lee, Collier and Henry, with over 50 volunteers working the week.

“There is almost one-on-one attention all the time,” Sharon said. “We have so many who want to come back, both volunteers and campers. So there are many ways one can contribute other than money donations.”

In 2012, the Fund was renamed the Robert V. and Benjamin G. Miller Fund.

“We renamed it because Benjamin is alive, we want to celebrate him, as well,” Sharon added.

To give the legacy and the camps a strong future, Miller’s daughter Kristina Beuning and granddaughter Ella, have been appointed as Successor Advisor to the Robert V. and Benjamin G. Miller Fund.

“Both Kristina and Ella came down from Wisconsin for some camps and they are just great,” Sharon said. “We want to ensure the camps are alive and well after we can no longer do it.”

The camps bring tons of smiles and memories for everyone involved. The camps also create legacies.

The oldest camper to ever take part in Trailways Camp was named Mike, who came at the age of 72. He was diagnosed with cancer prior to his attending the camp and passed away six months after.

“His brother said Mike always loved going to camps when he was child, so we had it arranged for him to attend (Trailways Camp),” Sharon said. “Now, Mike’s brother is a regular contributor to the camp.”

Benjamin is allowed to attend one full camp and then visit the others one day a week. He competes in the annual talent show, as well, usually performing A Cappella or some other singing act.

Although the April 9 “I Am Special” event is closed to the public, donations and volunteer opportunities are still available for the camps, which can be found at trailwayscamps.org.