44: The Birth of Camp Awesome

44: The Birth of Camp Awesome

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

The Birth of Camp Awesome

There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

~Kenneth Grahame

“I’m sorry, we simply don’t have staff trained to deal with children of that sort.” I slammed down the phone, the camp director’s words ringing in my ears. Burying my face in my hands, I tried not to cry, or scream. This was our son Mark’s twelfth summer and once again I could not find a camp to accept him. Not knowing, nor probably caring what autism is, the directors were deaf to my description of Asperger’s as a milder form of autism.

My heart ached as I watched the neighbor’s children playing happily in their yard on this sunshiny day while the thuds and squeaks of video games was the only indication my son was even awake. It was painful to see him always alone, spending most of his time playing those mindless games. Even the little boat a family friend had given him last spring didn’t interest him for long. Mark didn’t sail. No one in the family sailed, so what was the use? Sailing? Wait! Sailing! Hadn’t I read about summer classes for kids in a sailing center brochure?

Mentally sticking my chin in the air, I dug through the stuff in my desk, found the brochure and dialed the number for the Clearwater Community Sailing Center on Sand Key in nearby Clearwater, Florida. I fully expected they would also say they couldn’t accommodate my child.

Richard White, Director of Programs at the sailing center, answered the phone.

I carefully explained Mark’s challenges caused by his autism. They would soon discover his problems anyway.

“Will you take him in your camp?” I asked, trying not to sound anxious.

“I don’t know,” said Mr. White. “I’ll be glad to see what we can do. Why don’t you bring him to the center and we’ll find out.”

I couldn’t drive us there fast enough!

Rich began by asking Mark to read the first two pages of the sailing manual. Returning a few minutes later, he was surprised to see Mark looking out across the water.

“Did you finish the pages I assigned?” asked Rich.

“I read the whole book,” answered Mark. “When do we start?”

Sooner than I thought possible, Mark was belted into a life jacket and popped into a small boat. I don’t know if I was excited or frightened as I watched my boy head out on that wide expanse of water in a boat that looked smaller by the minute. In that boat, however, he would go a lot farther than just across the water.

I was amazed at the changes in Mark as he interacted with the other youngsters in his class. He didn’t settle for just sailing. He tried out the paddleboard, a sport where you stand on a long board with a long paddle to propel yourself across the water. To my delight my supposedly “challenged” son’s strength and balance made him good at it. His social skills improved as he actually participated in playing with the other campers in a game of capture the flag. He even volunteered to assist the instructor.

These were not the only changes I noticed in Mark. He began waking up on time and had less trouble sleeping at night. For the first time, he was eager to go to a camp. In fact, every day he was excited about going to the Sailing Center, with no complaints about boredom or frustration. I couldn’t believe how stress-free the summer became for both of us, in contrast to past vacations.

Eventually the time came for the campers to compete in one of the sailboat races held in a nearby city. I held my breath until Rich opted to be Mark’s crew in the race.

“Mark was truly the captain,” Rich told me. “I was the crew and, like a good crew, was careful to only make suggestions. The crew does not instruct the captain. So, as we approached the final mark, I only suggested that he tack before ‘rounding the mark’ to be in a better position for the finish line, but Captain Mark said, ‘I think I can make it without tacking.’ ”

“And,” Rich added, “he adjusted his sails and squeezed past the mark with inches to spare. His self-confidence won him the race.”

Because Mark learned to sail so quickly and improved so rapidly, a national sailing organization called US Sailing named him “Sailor of the Week,” complete with his story on their web page.

This recognition led to an interview on Bay News 9, a local television program. The reporter asked Mark, “How does sailing make you feel?”

His answer was, “Free and me.”

The award gave Mark a whole new view of himself and did wonders for his self-esteem, which had suffered considerably from past bullying at school.

I still find the whole adventure so incredible, especially compared to Mark’s experience in past summer programs. The Sailing Center crew showed great patience in working around his problems of impatience and self-esteem. It’s the best therapy we have found for our son.

After camp was over Mark hung out at the Sailing Center. That’s where he feels comfortable, welcome and, best of all, useful.

When I tried to thank Rich, he laughed.

“Don’t thank me,” he said. “Mark reminds me why I became a sailing instructor in the first place. He’s a pleasure to work with.”

In fact, Rich was so pleased with Mark’s progress, he asked me what I thought of putting together a camp the next summer to teach sailing to other youngsters affected by autism. Remembering Mark’s comment to the TV interviewer that sailing had made him feel “free and me,” I happily encouraged Rich to pursue the idea.

When Rich said, “I doubt I can teach my instructors how to work with young people with autism, but I can sure make sailing instructors out of people who know how to work with kids with Asperger’s,” I went looking for instructors.

We found them in the county school system. Teachers experienced in working with autistic kids jumped at the chance to be their sailing instructors. We hired three of them. Rich easily taught them to sail.

We had eight kids with Asperger’s participating in what Rich called Camp Awesome. I call it my own personal miracle.

Incredibly, this is only the beginning. Our guys and gals will continue to sail on a weekly basis. During the school year we plan weekend sails and family cookouts.

Better yet, US Sailing is introducing other sailing centers to have Camp Awesome for children with Asperger’s. I’m so thankful for Rich and the Clearwater Community Sailing Center. They took me from frustration and discouragement to triumph and enthusiasm in one short summer. And the difference it makes for Mark is — awesome.

~Bonnie Monroe

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