At the turn of the twentieth century a group of socially conscious women got together in an apartment on the lower east side of Manhattan and set up a recreational program for children with disabilities. The children were brought there by horse drawn carriage, and carried up the stairs where several days a week they were able to play games and hear stories. For many it was their first opportunity to socialize with children with disabilities.
Out of this small group evolved The Crippled Children’s East Side Free School. It was the first school of its kind in New York City. It offered children classes in education as well as sewing and other handicrafts. The success of the school enabled it to enlist the help of the New York City Board of Education and eventually incorporate special classes for children with disabilities into the public school system. With 137 public schools now offering special education programs, the Crippled Children’s School closed its doors in 1938.
Throughout those years the school also provided a summer home for the children in Oakhurst, New Jersey.
Originally started in 1906 as a Summer Home for the children who attended its school in New York, Camp Oakhurst in its earliest incarnation provided children with an opportunity to spend a few weeks enjoying the fresh air, but there were no programs or organized activities for the children to engage in. They slept in a dormitory setting on cots, with separate sections for boys and girls. The only other building at that time was an infirmary.
In the fall of 1946, the organization, now called New York Service for the Orthopedically Handicapped, again directed its services toward developing a pilot pre-school program for children with cerebral palsy. Its purpose was to prove that an otherwise typically developing child with cerebral palsy could learn the necessary skills to attend mainstream classes. Through an intensive program which incorporated physical and speech therapy into its curriculum, it achieved such success that in 1952 the Board of Education adopted it in its entirety.
The 1950′s saw major renovations to Camp Oakhurst, including the building of its first swimming pool. It continued to offer innovative programs into the next decade, including an Independent Living Project which placed institutionalized adults in foster homes into the community. A Community Services program offered children with disabilities the opportunity to enjoy recreational programs throughout the city side by side with their peers without disabilities. One of the last programs to be initiated outside of the camp was the Alexander School, which offered adults with disabilities the opportunity to receive vocational training and educational services.
In 1992 the agency embarked on a 2.4 million dollar rebuilding program for the camp, including a new gymnasium and swimming pool with a retractable roof.
Today, Camp Oakhurst is open all year, serving children and adults with physical and developmental challenges through its summer camp, year-round respite, day recreation and autism respite programs.