For the first time in their 73-year history, the Mt. Hood Kiwanis create a camp just for children and adults with autism
At the Mt. Hood Kiwanis' camp for autistic people, victories are measured in baby steps.
A teen-age boy who can't talk reaches out a tentative hand to his counselor - a breakthrough.
A girl who feels lost without her plastic flicking toy submerges it underwater as she glides through the pool in her counselor's arms - a high point.
'That is so cool,' says Camp Director Denise Wright from poolside as she watches camper Serafina Wren break out in a huge grin. 'I haven't seen her that happy all week. This is a great moment for her.'
Autism, a neurological disorder that, according to the Centers for Disease Control Prevention, affects one in 166 Americans, makes everyday life a challenge. Normal childhood experiences like camp can seem impossible.
But the Mt. Hood Kiwanis, thanks to a three-year grant, some ingenuity, and partnerships with Portland State University's special education program and The Oral Hull Foundation, is offering its first-ever camp just for autistic adults and children.
For four weeks this summer a crew of highly trained Kiwanis employees and a group of PSU student counselors ran an overnight camp that is the only one of its kind in the Portland-metro area.
With a one-to-one camper to counselor ratio and activities and schedules designed to fit each camper's individual needs, Wright says the camp has been more successful than she could have imagined.
Arts, crafts and smores
On the surface, it looks like any other camp. There's arts and crafts, music classes, swimming, field games, slip and slide, canoeing, movie nights, cookouts with smores and day trips to Roslyn Lake and the fish hatchery in Sandy.
But look a little closer, and you'll see adaptations that meet the different sensory needs of autistic people.
At an arts and crafts class, a poster gives visual step-by-step instructions on the day's activity - making a tie-dye T-shirt.
Autistic people crave routine, Denise says. If they are out of their comfort zone, which they are all the time at camp, clear visual cues of what is expected of them are critical.
Music classes include a tapping routine that starts at the forehead and travels down the body to the hands. Tapping and rocking often bring calm to people with autism.
A tent in the middle of Oral Hull Park, known as the 'chill-out tent,' provides 15-minute getaways for campers who need a break from the stimulus.
Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of the camp is that the counselors are college seniors who often have no experience with people with disabilities. Coming from varying backgrounds - business, advertising, biology, education - they arrive a day early for a crash course in autism.
Kimo Farm, a PSU senior in business/marketing, had worked in camp settings before, but had never worked around people with disabilities. He had heard good things about the Kiwanis camp, which has been around since 1933. The camp would satisfy the credit requirements he needed for his senior project, so he signed up.
But he wasn't prepared for his first camper, Matthew Johnson. Matthew can't talk and rarely makes eye contact. Kimo quickly adapted, using non-verbal signals.
'Our communication was touch and feel,' Kimo says. 'He really liked pressure on his head or on his chin, so I'd rub his head. I'd put my hand out, and he'd reach out, stand up or slap my hand, and I'd know I was getting across to him. It was a completely different type of connection than I've ever had with anyone before.'
Just as the camp gives those with autism a foray into a traditional camp setting - campers even dress up and go to a dance one evening - it also teaches the counselors about the world of autism.
In Kimo's second week as camp counselor, he was assigned to an adolescent boy who was higher functioning. He had autism, but he could talk and have conversations. Kimo chatted with him about football and sports.
'It's been interesting to see those two extremes, and I'm kind of glad it happened that way, so I could see the differences,' he says.
The happiest camper
Another reward, Denise says, is the relief and respite the camp gives parents and caregivers.
'For many parents, this is one week out of the year when they get a vacation,' she says. 'They plan for this time. Oftentimes, they plan special things to do with their other children, who may not get that one-on-one time with mom and dad the rest of the year.'
For Gresham's Val Topaum, the camp was a godsend for her 21-year-old son, James, who has Angelman's Syndrome, a condition characterized by lack of speech, delayed development and a happy demeanor.
Appropriately enough, James was dubbed 'the happiest camper' at camp, and Val was thrilled that he was able to stay the whole week.
'I couldn't believe it,' says Val, an educational assistant in special education at Centennial Middle School. 'They didn't call me once.'
Val and her husband have not enjoyed a vacation on their own in 34 years. For her, having James be able to attend an overnight camp meant a blessed week of respite, although she admits she missed her youngest son.
'James is a handful, but once you zero in on his ways, he is really hilarious,' she says. 'I'm just so glad he was able to have a good time. His counselor says he went canoeing twice, which makes sense because he loves water. The campers need this just as much as the parents do.'
Indeed, the social interaction is a bonus for these campers, whose support circle often ends at their immediate families.
Denise says there have been a few campers who even developed crushes on other campers.
'It was pretty cute,' she says. 'One boy told us he wanted to talk with a girl, but didn't know how to do it. So we talked about it with him and came up with a plan. The next day, we had a few counselors walk with him over to her table during lunch. They sat with them and helped him talk with her. The next day the counselors sat a little farther away, and he was able to talk with her on his own.'
Sometimes the staff has to get creative to help a camper be successful. One teenage girl kept getting up at around 4 a.m. every morning, feeling restless and wanting to go home.
Her counselor knew that a snack and movies usually calmed her, so at the door of her dorm room, the staff placed a tray of goodies and a few DVDs. Sure enough, the antsy camper could be found every morning in the movie room, contentedly watching her favorite films.
These examples underscore the premise of the camp, Denise says. 'Our challenge is how do we provide a typical camp environment but still meet the needs of those with disabilities?'
If this summer's experiences are any indication, Denise and crew have done an incredible job of answering that question.
The camp, which takes about 30 campers each of its four weeks, filled up its first year. Already, parents are inquiring about next summer.
'I think there's a huge need for this,' Denise says. 'A lot of these campers are not successful in a school environment, but they are in a recreational environment. It's not about tests or benchmarks. It's 'Can you make a friendship? Can you brush your teeth? Can you do this art project? Can you play kickball? Can you work on this puzzle?' '
Expectations are different at this camp. Fun is the ultimate goal. If a camper wants to spend his afternoon in a rocking chair, that's what he does.
Denise's favorite camp night is the Thursday evening dance.
'I love it. The campers get all dressed up,' she says. 'Here, they just get to be anybody. They're not the ones sitting on the sidelines. They get to dance.'