Jake Hoffner was 10 years old the first time he went to Camp Encourage in Kansas City more than 200 miles away from his home in Chesterfield.
His mother, Tracey Gibson, was scared he would hate it. Jake had never had a play date before. He had never been part of a team. He had never made a friend.
Jake has Asperger’s syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. Camp Encourage is a three-night, four-day camp for children on the spectrum.
“I wanted him to experience camp,” Tracey said. “I wanted to see if he could make friends.”
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In the winter or early spring, many parents start planning the summer for their children. The most desired summer camps fill up fast, and the race begins now. But for some children, summer is a chance to fit in with a group in a way they can’t the rest of the year.
There’s a growing demand for camps for children who struggle with a disability or some type of social, physical or emotional challenge. Beyond camps for children with physical disabilities, developmental delays or learning disabilities, there are camps for burn victims, bereavement camps for those who are grieving and camps for children with serious or chronic illnesses such as cancer or asthma.
During the school year, children with special needs are often mainstreamed into classrooms with typically functioning kids in schools. The same thing often happens in the summer. Many camps find ways to accommodate children with special needs and integrate them with other campers. But there is a growing demand for camps that cater to very specific populations. For some of these kids, that specialized experience helps them grow in ways that neurotypical children may take for granted.
Jake, now 15, will be attending Camp Encourage for the sixth summer this year.
He wrote a letter about how much those days mean to him.
“Camp Encourage is a very important part in my life. This is because every time I come, I know I’ll meet old friends. And come back with new ones.”
When his mother read this line aloud, she started crying.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t usually hear him talk this way.”
Kelly Lee, executive director at Camp Encourage, says the camp, which costs $1,200 per camper, offers scholarships to several of the students who attend. For families who may also be paying for therapies during the school year, additional expenses can put these opportunities out of reach.
“Every year we have a waiting list,” Lee said. “Our focus is on meeting needs, knowing how important tiny details can be to this population and to tailor to those needs.”
The Miriam Learning Center in St. Louis, which also runs day camps and therapy camps, faces a similar situation.
“We have space limitations based on the size of the facility,” said Keith Komorowski, assistant director of the Miriam Learning Center. “Demand outpaces it.”
The benefits that attract parents include: a specially trained staff, which has experience dealing with the students they will be serving; the opportunity to get additional services, enrichment or therapy in a camp setting; and the chance for their child to be surrounded by peers who share some of the same challenges. Miriam gives campers a chance to play on “noncompetitive” sports teams or work on their social skills.
Jennifer Blumenkemper, of Webster Groves, enrolled her son, Luke, for a camp at Miriam about a year and a half ago. Luke, who can appear to be a “fairly goofy, typical 13-year-old kid,” has an educational autism diagnosis, his mother said. He was able to develop friendships in camp he carried into the school year with him, she said.
“It was a gift I didn’t realize until I experienced it,” she said.
It also gave her the chance to rely on a staff who understood his needs without her having to be a constant advocate.
“There are so many children who are challenged in different ways,” she said. Some of them deal with stares or questions, like the burn victims who have to explain scars that cover their bodies. Others don’t get invited to birthday parties or face bullying at school, she said.
Jake captured that feeling in his letter when he wrote that his camp “lets in the kids that either have trouble making friends or the kids who don’t realize how cool they are.” Meanwhile, “the kids who may have bullied them, tormented them or just ignored them are left out,” he wrote.
He said that he discovered a place where “you can show who you really are. No one’s going to say, ‘you’re weird’ or ‘you’re a dork,’ just because you like something other kids don’t.”
His mother said the drive to Kansas City is worth it for those few days each summer.
“He lights up,” she said.