SIOUX CITY -- Even though Derek Bergman had only been Camp Hopes camp director for little more than a week, he already felt at home in the facility's outdoor sensory garden.
"My first summer camp experience occurred when I was in the third grade," the Elkhorn, Neb. native said with a smile. "When my mom dropped me off the first day, she joked that I never quite came back."
It certainly seemed that way.
Earning an elementary education degree from Peru State University, in Peru, Neb., Bergman has more than 20 years of experience working in camp facilities.
Most recently, he held full-time positions at camps in Omaha and Lake Okoboji.
With COVID-19 restrictions beginning to loosen, Bergman acknowledged he was joining Camp High Hopes at a very crucial juncture.
Located at 5804 Correctionville Road, the nonprofit Camp High Hopes offered year-round therapeutic recreation programs for youth and adults with diagnosed disabilities, chronic illnesses and other special needs.
Experiences in archery, canoeing and nature education are available for individuals and groups with Autism, Down Syndrome, Spina Bifida, Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy and other intellectual and physical disabilities.
"The pandemic had us shutting down the camp for a good six months last year," executive director Chris Liberto explained. "Once we were able to reopen the camp with reduced capacity for our fall and winter sessions, we were seeing as many 12 to 15 campers on any given weekend."
"The demand was there," he added. "We just had to be safe for our staff and, especially, for our campers."
Such safety measures will remain in place as Camp High Hopes prepares for a full season of summer camp, beginning in June. This includes nine weeks of summer sleep-away camp and nine weeks of summer day camp programs.
"Face masks must be worn indoors and social distancing will still be required," Liberto said. "With the weather warming up, we'll be doing more things outdoors, where masks are not required."
In addition, summer camps can only open with 70 percent capacity and spots are likely to fill up quickly.
Despite that, Liberto is keeping his fingers crossed that this summer will be the beginning of getting back to normal.
"If the pandemic taught us anything, it was to stay flexible," he said. "We learn to adjust to the situation, no matter what it is."
Which is fine by Bergman.
"What I liked most about the camp experience is it allowed me to step out from my comfort zone," he explained. "It taught me new things and allowed me to meet new people."
Even though this is the first time Bergman has worked in a camp for individuals with special needs, he is looking forward to the challenge.
"After this past year, our camps are more important than ever," he said. "Camp High Hopes works hard to make the camp environment and activities accessible to each of our campers."
"I'm excited to join this amazing team," Bergman added. "I am honored to be part of a camp that sees everyone's abilities and helps the smiles shine."