Bring it on, zombie apocalypse: Ushers Ferry Zombie Survival camp teaches wilderness survival and disaster planning

Camp engages kids in risky play

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In the event of a zombie apocalypse, no town is better prepared than Cedar Rapids.

At least, that’s what Ann Cejka, program coordinator at Ushers Ferry Historic Village, says — and she would know, considering she’s led Zombie Survival Camps at Ushers Ferry for several years.

Cejka developed the camp in the aftermath of the 2008 flood to teach kids about wilderness survival, basic awareness and safety, emergency preparedness, leadership and other important life skills. She modeled lessons from the Center for Disease Control’s website on the zombie apocalypse, which is intended to teach kids about disaster planning.

“If you’re always prepared in some way for the unexpected, it puts you in a better situation,” Cejka said. “it gives you more confidence and courage to do what you need to do. And we have so many things going on today in the world. Instead of being paralyzed by your fear, wouldn’t it be nice to say, yeah, terrible things are going to happen but maybe this will help me figure out what to do about them. I like to give kids that little bit of confidence.”

The camp also exposes kids to the outdoors and to “risky play,” both of which Cejka said they don’t get enough of anymore and “that can be very damaging to their mental health.”

“We are terrified to let our kids go out,” Cejka said. “Everybody’s afraid there’s a monster around every corner. There’s a lot of parental anxiety. But you have to get out there and play with your kids.”

Risky play exposes children to activities that risk physical injury or mental challenges such as overcoming fears or testing their limits. She said studies have shown risky play to enhance the emotional well-being of kids, from improving their confidence, decision making and risk assessment skills, to reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety and ADHD, for example.

“We like to give them that sense of freedom that they’re going into wild, unexplored, uncharted territory,” Cejka said. “It’s that high adventure sensation. A lot of that helps kids manage anxiety and fear.”

Even in record-breaking freezing temperatures last week, 20 kids aged 8 to 12 flocked to Ushers Ferry for a spring break packed with tactical training, zombie attacks and even an all out human versus zombie battle on Thursday.

Camp began in the town hall, where kids were divided into two teams and given individual “roles” — from scientist to medic, scout, engineer and more.

“Everybody gets a role and when they each have a job to do in the team, they tend to do better,” Cejka said

Throughout the week, they’re taught awareness and observational skills — to pay attention to their senses and instincts and to trust their gut when something’s not right — as well as wilderness survival skills such as navigation, animal tracking and shelter building.

At some point, they spot their first zombie and they’re taught to run and hide, not attack.

“Fighting is a last resort,” Cejka said.

After all, underneath the zombie makeup are volunteers — usually kids who have “graduated out” of the camp.

“Some kids are just incredibly passionate about this camp and have come back again and again,” Cejka said. “When they turn 13 and have shown good leadership, they begin training under our lead zombie.”

Kealey Oldham, 13, has been going to Zombie Camp since she was eight, and last week, she became one of the undead.

“When I saw the zombies for the first time, it was super cool and I felt like I was in a movie almost because it was just so lifelike,” Oldham said. “That’s why I wanted to be a zombie, too. It was such a thrill for me, I wanted to show the other kids how fun it is.”

Beyond just being fun, Oldham said the camp taught her important skills like how to start a fire, how to whittle a walking stick and how to trust her instincts.

Oldham said she wants to work for Ushers Ferry someday because she “loves it so much.” She also plans to volunteer for their other camps, which include Huckleberry Finn camp, Dangerous Day camp, American Girl camp, Fantasy Foam Battle camp, Canoe Pirate Adventure and more.

Zombie Survival camp runs in the spring and the summer and is one of their most popular camps, often keeping a short waitlist. The next session will be in July.

“People love the program because it’s imaginative, creative and kids do have a sense of ownership,” Cejka said. “They’re out there pretending they’re fighting zombies, but actually learning useful things.”

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