Above: Jenna Taylor shares her cap with her brother Eric Winter upon her graduation from DeWitt High School in June 2002. Says Jenna of the camp: "Every year it's a reminder of who Eric was and what he loved, and how many people were touched by his life. The camp is a way to not lose those memories." Photo by Judy Winter.
Had East Lansing resident Judy Winter let her late son's disability put up roadblocks, no one would have heard the story of his remarkable life.
Instead, Eric's story is told time and again through a music camp that bears his name and serves dozens of families each year.
This June, the 2017 Eric "RicStar" Winter Music Therapy Camp celebrates its 15th year as a day camp that provides people with special needs the opportunity for musical expression, enjoyment and interaction. Since 2003, the camp, coordinated through the Michigan State University Community Music School, has provided a week of joy to nearly 1,300 campers—many who return year after year. Siblings can also attend all or part of the weeklong camp, while parents can find time for respite by entrusting their loved ones to the care of skilled camp staff and volunteers.
"Eric had wanted to attend a summer camp so much, but at the time, most, if not all, did not take children with special needs," says Winter, an author, speaker and long-time advocate for special needs children. "Because he loved music and his music therapy sessions so much, we knew this camp was the right way to honor his life and legacy."
A musical language
Eric was born to Judy and Dick Winter in 1990. Although his physical and language abilities were affected by cerebral palsy, Eric was raised to lead a full life. His parents were his constant champions, as well as his older sister Jenna.
"Eric's story is really about what happened to this little boy that people thought wouldn't amount to much, who went on to be included in his neighborhood school and pursue his gift for music," says Winter. "That was in part because we refused to buy in to those limiting words that are still spouted by so many people."
Winter says Eric's gift for music became apparent at an early age. To foster his talent, Winter contacted the Community Music School (CMS) in East Lansing and arranged for Eric to work with music therapist Cindy Edgerton, now director of music therapy clinical services. Eric thrived under the guidance of Edgerton and student therapists, and progressed from a toddler singing songs to playing guitar to composing and producing work.
Above: Co-Founders of the RicStar's Music Camp Dick Winter and Judy Winter, Cindy Edgerton (center). All three are graduates of MSU. Photo courtesy of Judy Winter.
"Eric was simply amazing," says Edgerton. "Sometimes he had difficulty showing just how amazing he was, but he grew to be able sing 'I love you' to his mom, and to write and compose beautiful songs—both of which we play every year at camp."
Eric passed away unexpectedly in early 2003 at the age of 12. Devastated, the Winter family reached inward and searched for a way to honor Eric's life. They found the answer through the memorial gifts that poured in from family, friends and the community.
Within a few short months, the Winters transformed those gifts into an endowment that supports an ongoing music camp in Eric's name. It was an idea that sprung from conversations with CMS, and something the Winters and Edgerton knew could be sustained based on their experiences with the special needs community.
"We knew we could fill a niche. And we knew we hit a nerve right from the very beginning," says Winter. "The demand was there right from the get-go. We also knew we had the best camp director in Cindy Edgerton. She is simply an outstanding person who changed Eric's life and ours."
The musical paths
The RicStar's Music Camp attracts campers from within a five-mile radius of East Lansing, throughout Michigan and north to Canada. In the first year, 46 campers age 3 to 57 attended. Sixteen volunteers joined four music therapists in leading four groups. Last year, 102 campers from preschoolers to octogenarians attended, supported by about 50 volunteers and 26 CMS staff who organized and led 10 groups.
Each year, Jenna Taylor, Eric's sister, volunteers. Jenna says she enjoys the camp because of the friendships she makes—something that's key to campers, families and volunteers. She says, too, that the camp serves as a special reminder of the number of people who continue to be touched by her brother's life.
Above: Eric's sister, Jenna Taylor, volunteers at the camp yearly. Thanks to technology, camper Nathan is able to play guitar with his feet. Photo by Erik Taylor. Used with permission from RicStar's Music Camp.
"Volunteering at the camp is like having a friend you see every year," reflects Taylor. "Eric would have loved seeing how inclusive and fun it is. Everyone is celebrated for who they are, and he would absolutely appreciate that."
As the camp grew in popularity, so too, did the number of days. In the first year, the camp spanned three days and was held at its first home of CMS on Timberlane Drive. Today, the camp spans a six-day period with two three-day camps—all taking place within a more spacious and centrally located CMS on Hagadorn Road.
"One of my very favorite things is seeing campers on the very first day," says Edgerton. "I love standing at the door and seeing everyone come in. We have music playing in the parking lot, returning campers come and give you hugs, and you see the excitement on everyone's face. It makes my day, and my year."
After the initial meet and greet, campers disperse into age-specific groups to express themselves musically and to socialize. Campers have the chance to play guitars, kazoos, dulcimers, drums and percussion instruments, and to explore a variety of musical styles—including rock 'n' roll. Campers dance, move and are invited to laugh and make "noise" using their voices, their instruments, and ever-popular "boom whackers." Performances by special guests and by campers add to the texture.
"There's simply a lot of 'wow' factor at our camp," says Winter. "There was a young girl who stood up for the first time because she was motivated. There was a young man with autism who rarely speaks. He came up to me one year and spoke to me by name."
Those moments, Winter says, represent an underlying purpose: to provide a place where everyone is equal, where no one is judged by what they can and can't do, and where everyone is given an opportunity to shine in whatever way they can. And for the families and people who come to the camp, that can be a rare experience—if, in fact, they find it at all.
"Our families are so used to being told what their child can't do," says Winter. "I think that's one of the greater gifts the camp gives: the feeling that they matter, that someone cares about them in a good way. We're not condescending. We're not limiting. We're all about celebrating abilities. And, combined with music therapy, that's very powerful."
This year's camp will continue to provide the same environment and a similar mix of opportunity. But for just a few moments, Winter will take time to acknowledge how far the camp has come in 15 years, and the number of lives it has touched.
Sam Hadar understands, and will join the dozens of long-time volunteers who will be there to celebrate. As a patient care technician with Sparrow, and a first-year student in the nursing program at MSU, Hadar recognizes the camp's effect on the campers' wellbeing. On a personal level, he values celebrating the life and legacy of a 12-year-old boy who was his best friend.
"Eric's friendship meant the world to me," Hadar says as he reflects on the pre-teen years he spent hanging out and playing music with Eric. "He got me started with music, but what really brought us together was his laughter. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and that was how we became best friends."
The 15th annual RicStar's Music Camp is always looking for volunteers. Camp sessions are June 15-17 and June 19-21. For information on volunteering or to find out more about enrolling as a camper, click here.