Church creates autism camp to broaden horizons

Camper Charley Weimere, center, is helped with a sand art project by volunteers Elizabeth Weimere and Hayden Belcher at an autism camp.

POWHATAN – Every activity had the change of being hit or miss.

For organizers of the first Prayerful Hands Garden Summer Camp, planning a week of activities for children on the autism spectrum involved a combination of hard work and years of experience working with children.

But as the half-day program unfolded all last week at St. John Neumann Catholic Church and the volunteers running the camp interacted with the children and saw their reactions, it was a constant journey of discovery for all of them, said Karyn Hill of Powhatan, head of the camp.

“They got to try a lot of new experiences and feel them out. It is funny what experience was a hit with each kid,” she said. “One of the boys loved the water sports. A little girl was playing with frogs who wouldn’t have done it earlier in the week. This morning we did yoga, and two of the boys I thought would be interested weren’t really into it. But a little boy who wasn’t really engaged before, yoga was his thing.”

This new camp, which was held in the mornings from June 24 to 28 at the church, had five children between ages 7 and 9, all on the autism spectrum. Father Walter Lewis said the idea came from speaking with a parent who wanted his or her child to have the camp experience but couldn’t afford to pay several hundred dollars for it.

The camp had a cost of $100 fee, but that was just to help cover some of the costs, Lewis said. It was only possible because upwards of 30 volunteers from teens to adults gave their time to plan and execute it. In addition to several teachers with 20 plus years of experience, each of the campers had an assigned teenage buddy, some of whom are also on the autism spectrum. Bon Secours event sent over student nurses to help and observe the camp.

“It is a radically different experience. It really took people who understand the autism experience to make this happen,” Lewis said. “You’ve really got to be able to move with where they are and engage them.”

The church is in the second year of building up its community garden, so Lewis said he wanted that to be incorporated into what the children would experience. But overall the goal was just to provide them with a fun time at camp with new experiences, he said.

“I love the moments when you see the breakthrough – doing yoga and getting it or saying ‘I don’t want to go home’ or trying a muffin with strawberry jam made from the garden. You know their world has gone from enclosed to a little bit larger, and that was a joy to watch,” Lewis said.

To beat the summer heat, each morning usually started with a different activity in the Prayerful Hands Community Garden. Campers played in the dirt and learned about different kinds of soil, Hill said. One day they had a treasure hunt that encouraged them to explore the garden. Another day they created a watering herb garden by planting herbs commonly used on pizza.

“We want them to have this garden experience of being able to grow things and see what happens. It connects them to the real world experience,” Hill said.

They had daily art projects, which included making a cookie cutter bird feeder, sand art, painting rocks, coffee can planters, photo frames, and more. They made schedules, but they weren’t fanatical about sticking to them.

“You have to be flexible because sometimes kids want to participate and sometimes they don’t. That’s why each kid has a buddy – so they can go off for a few minutes if they need to,” said Hill, whose 15-year-old son Gabe, who is also on the spectrum, acted as a buddy during the camp.

Organizers built in safe spaces for the children to help them transition between activities or rest awhile if they became overwhelmed. They used a homemade outdoor sensory rug in the sensory relaxation garden where the children could take off their shoes and walk across a rectangular box with different surfaces, such as sand, rocks, wooden slats, or plastic tubes.

Inside the church was a quiet room with different size exercise balls and other balls where they could go to relax.

“Being able to bounce and roll on their stomachs on the balls calms them when they get stressed out. The sensory garden rug in the sensory garden is the same,” Hill said.

Toward the end of camp each day, the children ate lunch at a picnic table outside. Usually included was at least one item that had ingredients raised in the community garden.

Robin Swan of Powhatan brought her son Ethan, 8, to the camp starting on Wednesday and said it was wonderful to have a camp for children specifically on the autism spectrum. She didn’t know what to expect going in; she was just hoping he would have fun with the activities. Ethan loves being outdoors, so the sensory garden and playing with bubbles were some of his favorite activities, she said.

“It meant a lot. I think it is nice to see more opportunities for autistic children to spread awareness of autism and to let them be engaged in things they love,” she said.

The week ended with a ceremony on Friday, complete with each child receiving a special certificate. Hill said the group was small for the first year, but they plan to offer it again next summer and hope it will grow. The small size helped as they worked through the week and learned what worked and didn’t for the children. Overall, she is extremely pleased with how it turned out.

“It has been a great experience for kids and adults. We have had as much fun as the kids,” she said.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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