Playing outside on the Heartspring tree house, Camp SSTAR junior counselor John looks at ease. He helps kids down the slide then notices some of the campers aren’t taking part in the fun. John takes one on a bike ride then picks him up to play airplane. A smile breaks out on the little boy’s face as he soars through the air. The 19-year-old’s excitement is contagious and quickly spreads to the other campers. Sometimes it can be difficult to connect with children with autism, but John seems to have no problem at all.
“No one can completely understand what another person is feeling is what I’ve learned and it’s something I stand by, but I try to sympathize,” John said. “I try to see how they’re feeling.”
John has a different perspective than others on the camp staff. That’s because he is impacted by autism and is currently a student at Heartspring. He says being able to mentor kids who have problems like him, who dealt with things like he has, is a surreal experience. He added that it was also a good experience.
John has been at Heartspring Residential for about three years. He began having trouble when he entered high school. He had huge anxiety attacks and began overeating. He also had trouble managing his diabetes. It’s hard to imagine now, but the smiling, outgoing camp counselor began pushing others away.
That’s when he went to Heartspring. It wasn’t always easy at first. John said he was having behaviors off and on every other week or even day. According to the Dr. Wayne Piersel, the director of psychology, John had issues labeling his emotions when he arrived. When he was scared or nervous he would say he was angry, which made it hard for others to react to his needs.The staff also worked on John’s self-confidence. Jennifer Daugherty, one of John’s team members, said it really took away from his classroom participation and assignment completion when he began at Heartspring. His team collaborates weekly and makes sure John has the support he needs. Now, he is in a place where he can help others at Camp SSTAR. His eyes lit up when he talked about one camper who was very shy at the beginning of the camp, but, over time, opened up and became much more social.
“John seems to understand their frustrations,” outreach division director Kimberly Becker said. “He also is willing to try different avenues in which to assist in calming and communicating with the students.”
John’s time at Heartspring is coming to an end. He will transition back home in December and is on his way to becoming a high school graduate. Then he plans on attending college while he’s there. John hopes to become a librarian or book editor. His teachers believe he has a very bright future ahead of him.
But, before he moves on, he still has a little bit more time to make an impact at Camp SSTAR and, maybe, he’ll make a difference in the lives of one of the kids he helps down the slide or picks up to play airplane, just as Heartspring did for him.