Camp Wings of Friendship reaches across abilities

It’s Tuesday morning, and Camp Wings of Friendship starts in 30 minutes.

Amy Knowlton sits down at the desk at her Boynton Beach home and clicks on the Zoom link. She opens her fourth notebook to the page she left off as the window pops up to let her know the meeting will begin at noon.

She glances back at the email, below the link, to today’s schedule:

  • 12 p.m. — I am the Only Me
  • 2 p.m. —  Be Remarkable
  • 4 p.m. — Dylan’s Connections

Knowlton’s favorite hour is sign language on Thursdays, mostly because of the clapping. But it doesn’t matter the day. Like most of her time, her days are built on routines. So Monday through Friday, she sits down at her computer at 11:30, counting the minutes for a half-hour until the host opens the meeting to begin the summer camp she loves.

“I hope my friend Danielle can come next year,” Knowlton said. “She stayed home all day with nothing to do.” 

Knowlton attends the Academy for Community Inclusion at Florida Atlantic University. Her mom Nancy, said that Camp Wings of Friendship, a free virtual camp for teens and adults with disabilities, helped Amy to be more vocal and make friends.

“I like the routine and the ability for campers to join online,” Nancy said. “I also liked the themes that stress kindness and acceptance.”

Camp Wings of Friendship was co-developed and led by The Friendship Journey of South Florida and Dylan’s Wings of Change of Newtown, Conn. The two nonprofit organizations connected by chance and began working together just before the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, WOF shifted its initial in-person plans for camp and created virtual programming focused on connection, belonging and esteem.

“People with disabilities are often marginalized in our society,” said Samantha Novick, president of The Friendship Journey. “We all deserve equitable experiences, meaningful friendships and opportunities to feel empowered. Last year, as the pandemic swept through our communities, we found ourselves uncertain of how to navigate these challenging times. We wanted to cultivate connections and joy during this dark chapter of social isolation and fear.”

The eight-week camp comprises 15 hours of activities each week, including dance parties, farm field trips, sign language, art, trivia, theater, cooking, acting, beatboxing and games. These activities foster meaningful connections while also helping the campers understand and embrace their identities.

During Dylan’s Connections, they explore deeper topics such as belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization. In I am the Only Me, campers learn about identities and what makes them unique.

“It’s given these kids an outlet and an opportunity,” said Ian Hockley, founder and director of Dylan’s Wings of Change. “Some of the campers said they never had friends before this.”

Hockley started the program to honor his son, Dylan, one of the first-grade victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.

Its partner in camp, The Friendship Journey, unites friends of all physical and neurological abilities through equitable opportunities and lasting connections. In all of its inclusive activities, The Friendship Journey honors Jaime Guttenberg and Gina Montalto, two of its student volunteers who lost their lives in the Parkland Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting.

In addition to their shared vision of a more compassionate world, the Parkland and Sandy Hook communities speak the language of loss. They honor those whose lives were taken due to violence and hatred by setting off ripples of kindness, understanding and love in Camp Wings of Friendship.

“Both of our nonprofit organizations envision a kind, compassionate, equitable world, and both of our communities have been devastated by gun violence,” Novick said.

During their first call, when the idea of camp formed, Novick and Hockley agreed that Dylan, Guttenberg and Montalto had brought them together.

“We sensed that we were meant to be connected, and through this darkness, we have found light in celebrating their lives,” said Novick, a speech-language pathologist and owner of Bridge Therapy in Coral Springs. “Dylan, Jaime and Gina’s bright spirits continue to shine.”

Bryan Kaufman is a 21-year-old from Boca Raton who has attended camp the past two summers; his favorite activities are cooking, Zoom chats and making friends.

“I like that there are multiple breaks and also that the topics change every week,” said Bryan’s mother, Jane, of Boca Raton. “The camp has provided Bryan with a way to socialize with some friends during a time where it is difficult to get together because of the virus.”

The Camp Wings of Friendship staff — a group of therapists, professionals, college students and high-school volunteers — say they gain just as much from the program.

“WOF has been the most rewarding experience for both myself and everyone involved,” said WOF counselor Lindsay Michaelson, of Boca Raton. “We discover the importance of being our truest and most genuine selves and embrace our differences. We remind ourselves of the importance of self-love, friendship, and acceptance, as well as looking for the good in everyone and everything.”

Michaelson, a senior at the University of Florida, says she spent every summer of 2020 weekday (on Zoom) with “the most kindhearted and loving individuals while we sang, danced, and laughed” during interactive and exciting activities. This summer, Michaelson is both a camp coordinator and a counselor for WOF.

“My favorite part about working with WOF and the campers is developing friendships and connecting with everyone on a deeper level,” she said. “It feels like we all have known each other forever. WOF is a family filled with such insightful, strong, and beautiful people.” 

WOF has partnerships with Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities, the Florida Panthers, Kindness Shared Happiness Squared, Monkey See Monkey Do Art Studio, Remarkable Disability Services, ASAP! and the HDS Foundation.

Two of the camp mottos are “kindness is key” and “look for the good.”

“I hope that the campers at WOF feel empowered by our community of people of all abilities,” Michaelson said. “It’s so important for us to embrace our uniqueness and make a positive impact on the rest of our world.”

Hockley sometimes makes a guest appearance, especially during one of his favorites, the beatboxing hour.

“This camp has given many of the kids a voice they didn’t have before,” Hockley said. “It’s really a community that they have built the last two years. Some of them truly believe they can make positive change in the world.”

This “change” is the spirit behind Hockley’s son’s legacy. Dylan had autism, and when he would flap his arms, Dylan would say that he was a “beautiful butterfly.” Dylan’s Wings of Change is guided by the “butterfly effect” — how small changes can accumulate with massive effect: The flap of a butterfly’s wings might cause a hurricane.

WOF leads weekly programs in honor of Dylan, Guttenberg and Montalto — Dylan’s Connections, Gina’s Art Friends and Jaime’s Dance Party.

They honor that Dylan loved making people smile. When someone frowned he would ask, “Why sad?”

They honor that Gina was a gifted artist with a kind soul. Her former art teacher, Joie Reul, creates art pieces each week, always with a connection to Gina.

And they honor that Jaime was a talented dancer and the life of the party who dreamed of becoming a pediatric physical therapist. Jaime’s best friends lead Jaime’s Dance Party in her memory, and Novick called it “truly the best party in town.”

Novick would love to see Camps Wings of Friendship replicated throughout the country. This summer, there are more than 80 registered campers in nine states.

“There have been many advantages to the virtual space,” Novick said. “We utilize breakout rooms to provide a true camp experience, and every camper is assigned a cabin and counselors. The virtual component creates an accessible space for individuals with physical disabilities, sensory processing challenges and for those who feel more comfortable at home.”

To find out more about the camp and The Friendship Journey; visit; for Dylan’s Wings of Change, visit The Friendship Journey also holds a Digital Discussions class that teachers proper virtual etiquette throughout the school year.

To learn more about social groups for teens and adults with disabilities and individualized therapy through Bridge Therapy, visit