When I walked into the Trailblazer’s Camp SSTAR room to take photos, the campers were having a bit of a break before cooking their lunch. They were all sitting around the table talking about different things. I started looking at the “Life” game they had set out and remarked that the game wasn’t like the one I grew up with. One of the boys, Joe, came over and started to show me all of the new features, like the credit card and the credit card reader, and how they worked. He seemed happy and was smiling as he told me about his favorite versions of the game. It was hard for me to believe that this was the same boy whose mother I interviewed just a few days earlier. The boy she told me about, before he started attending Camp SSTAR and CARE Clubs seemed so different than the young man that was explaining the ins and outs of the newest edition of “Life” to me.
Before coming to Camp SSTAR and CARE Clubs, Joe was having trouble functioning in a classroom setting. He would scream and cry under his desk. His parents decided to home school him because of those difficulties, but there was still a lot to work through. Once they moved to Kansas they looked to Heartspring and Autism Services for help.
“We quickly realized that while Joe showed desire to interact with his peers, he was limited in his ability to understand how or when to engage with same-aged peers,” Autism Services Director Nicole McLain said. “This was evidenced by his frequent elopement from group settings and limited conversation with adults and peers in his environment. Soon after starting camp, he began to show progress by staying with the group, asking for breaks when he felt overwhelmed, and began engaging in meaningful conversations with peers his same age.”
After Joe’s first year at Camp SSTAR, he continued on into the CARE Clubs and built the social skills and the friendships he established in the summer.
“This is a safe place for him to go,” Joe’s mother, Stacy, said. “The kids here are more understanding and empathetic. It’s a safe environment for him to be who he is.”
He’s taking what he’s learned into his day-to-day life. Joe is involved in Boy Scouts. He’s picked up important social skills that allow him to be more successful in the group. He can even go on camping trips with his peers. After enrolling in CARE’s programs, Joe was also able to join the swim team.
“That was huge,” Stacy said. “For him to be a part of a team and a sports team was a big step. It’s still pretty emotional for me, as a mom, to see him in the pool because he had difficulty with everything physical growing up…. He was deathly afraid of the water, deathly afraid of the pool. I remember the first time we took him to swimming lessons it took four individuals to kind of push his legs together to squeeze him through the door and get him into the pool, and now he’s on a swim team and he’s swimming competitively. That’s a big step.”
It’s not just the physical aspect of it. Joe has learned to work with other kids in a pool where there are unwritten social rules about passing other swimmers and swimming in the proper part of the lane.
Thanks to Autism Services, Joe, and his personality, are finally getting a chance to shine. Whether it is on a camping trip, in the pool or at Camp SSTAR, Joe has made major improvements. The program gave Joe the tools to learn and grow so he can try new experiences and excel in them.
“He was a boy who continually screamed ‘I can’t do that,’” Stacy said. “Now he is an adolescent who whispers, “I will give it a try.”