Brendan Junior Sailing Camp has all the rituals of any summer camp: swim tests, food adjustments and anxious campers sizing each other up.
But if these 10- to 13-year-olds gathered in Annapolis, Md., seem edgier than most, it is because this is not just any summer camp. All the campers have learning disabilities and struggle with traditional schoolbook learning and often with making friends.
But as CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver reports, Brendan Junior Sailing Camp helps them reach their goals the old-fashioned way.
Wayne Schonthaler, who has memory difficulties, is home schooled by his mother Lois.
"He needs a lot of repetition to remember things," she says. "And the method that they use is not a work style, so itÂ's a hands-on experience. And of course that sinks in a lot better."
Wayne is marking his third summer at this day camp: "ItÂ's fun," he says. "ItÂ's like, well, youÂ're going to meet more new people, and youÂ're going to help other people."
If Wayne is excited about camp, Spencer Phillips is very nervous. At 10 years old, heÂ's the youngest and smallest camper. He suffers from attention deficit hyperactive disorder just like his psychiatrist father, Robert.
"ItÂ's a brain disorder, and it is something that causes the brain to operate without brakes," his father explains. "It makes it very difficult for them to focus."
For Spencer, that means it is sometimes hard to remember to do just one thing at a time.
Spencer and the others have not come to camp to play baseball or go hiking; they have come to learn the complex and thrilling art of sailing.
The camp was named for the patron saint of Irish sailors by the man who started it all, Jim Muldoon. He is also a champion sailor in his 72-foot ocean racer Donneybrook and president of the United States Sailing Association.
"YouÂ're gonna learn something thatÂ's gonna teach you some skills that youÂ're never gonna forget," Muldoon tells a group of campers. "And theyÂ're gonna serve you well the rest of your life."
"I have a son that is...severely learning disabled," Muldoon says. "And one day I noticed that this young boy, who was having trouble telling his right hand from his left hand, knew port from starboard and that he was telling my crew, these big burly sailors on my boat, how to run the boat. And they were listening to him."
Motivated by his sonÂ's success, Muldoon began to raise money to start the camp and established a foundation to subsidize its running for a four-week session each summer.
Campers pay $125 a week, only a fraction of the real cost. The Brendan program is now in its 15th year, all beginning with those awkward first days when no one knows the difference between the boom and the bow, when guys like Spencer are just a little leery of getting wet.
"I think youÂ've got to adjust...the way you deal with them a littl bit," says camp director Chris Ford, who is a music teacher during the school year. "ItÂ's very difficult to spend a lot of time talking about something. ItÂ's much better to do it, and itÂ's much better to go at it in a number of different ways."
So there is a lot of personal instruction. On the very first day, kids are taught how to capsize a boat and then turn it upright. Spencer found it tough at first, but Wayne seemed to take it all in stride. By the end of the first day, WayneÂ's confidence was obvious.
"Once you go out there, itÂ's fun and you can do whatever you want,...Just get out of the boat before it comes and hits you," says Wayne.
And Spencer also had something to brag about to his mother: "The guy said I did great at the tiller," he exclaims.
In one week, thereÂ's a marked change. The kids may not be expert sailors yet, but they are gaining skills and confidence. Instructors keep trying different teaching methods until the kids feel the exhilaration of sailing and capsizing without fear. While there are occasional crises, like a sea nettle sting, the campers learn to persevere and trust themselves.
"We only see them for a few weeks," Ford says. "But we see some definite changes in the way they feel about themselves - the way they interact with the other kids that are here, the way they interact with the adults. ThereÂ's some real growth, and thatÂ's the exciting thing."
The kids get to see success stories every day. Chase McLeod suffers from a reading disability. After attending Brendan for three seasons, now heÂ's an instructor.
"It gave me a big responsibility," he says. "And it kind of made me grow up some."
Older campers, like Sara Bloomberg, who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder and attention deficit disorder, love the sense of freedom sailing brings.
"The windÂ's in my face and I feel really, really happy because like I can pick where to go. And then you just go, and you follow the leader or whatever you do and it's just very fun," she says.
And Wayne says the sailing program has given him a dream: "I want a boat so badly, IÂ'd just die for a boat. IÂ'd do practically anything in the world if I could just have a boat."
And a sail on MuldoonÂ's Donnybrook is one of the annual highlights. Muldoon, who always captains the boat himself, takes time from his jam-packed professional and sailing life.
"There is nothing that I do all year long that I come away from feeling better," says Muldoon. "ItÂ's watching the kids open up. Every year I have at least one parent come up to me and say, Â'YouÂ've changed the life of my child.Â' ThatÂ's worth all of it. I donÂ't get that kind of currency anywhere else."
And for this night at least these kids are relaxed and confident, savoring new friendships and the fresh Chesapeake Bay breezes. Spencer hasnÂ't yet joined MuldoonÂ's crew, but when Sunday Morning left hm, he was steering like a champion.
Copyright 1999 CBS. All rights reserved.
CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff