In 1965, the Rev. Paul Zahler, a Benedictine monk at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Shawnee, had a radical idea.
If he could combine what he knew of physical activity and its effect on the brain, with cognitive development strategies, he might have a method for helping people with disabilities. More than half a century later, his groundbreaking work continues to improve the lives of children and adults with developmental challenges.
“Talk About Enlightenment!”
The same year that Zahler had his revelation, St. Gregory’s Abbey converted the boarding school for high-school-aged boys it had operated into a junior college. To help with the abbey’s educational tasks, Zahler was completing a doctorate in education when he was moved by the plight of children with disabilities. At that time, and continuing through the next decade, U.S. schools educated only one in five children with disabilities, and many states had laws excluding certain students—including children who were deaf, blind, or emotionally challenged, or who had an intellectual disability, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Zahler and a fellow monk at St. Gregory’s decided to launch a swimming program for special needs individuals. They expected 10 or 15 to enroll; 90 came the first day.
“One of those children, John Paul Price, was 7 months old … all he could do was move his head from side to side,” Zahler said. “I put him in the water, put my finger in the nape of his neck and his arms went out and his legs moved. You talk about enlightenment!”
By 1972, Zahler’s ideas had caught on, and he established a weeklong camp for people with disabilities. In 1974, he opened the Child Development Center at St. Gregory’s to provide swimming, horseback riding, music, art, sports and crafts for special-needs children—and in 1996, Zahler and his staff launched Camp Benedictine, offering overnight camps once a month at St. Gregory’s.
A New Direction
Zahler’s programs flourished over the next two decades. However, in 2017, St. Gregory’s College, now St. Gregory’s University, ran into financial difficulties and was forced to file for bankruptcy. Hobby Lobby and its owners, the Green family, purchased the campus and its facilities. The company then leased the campus to Oklahoma Baptist University for an undisclosed amount.
Since that time, Zahler has relocated and taken his programs to an online platform that is offered worldwide. Camp Benedictine was forced to close in March 2020 due to COVID-19.
“Camp Benedictine is … a special blessing for people with disabilities,” said Wendi Determann, whose son Jaron attended the camp. “(Jaron) has moved from being in high school to working. He’s doing really well. I truly feel that if we didn’t have programs like Camp Benedictine, it would be a different story.”
But Zahler has plans for reviving the program post-COVID. Former Gov. Brad Henry, a longtime advocate of Zahler’s programs, has stepped in to help raise funding to reopen and improve the camp.
“People have been longing for it to be open. That has been the hardest part,” said program director Virginia Reeves. “We’re hoping and praying really hard that we can get it open again.”