Picture the feeling of being on vacation: the sounds of nature, the sun warming the skin and kids laughing as they splash in the water. Life is…good.
The stresses of the “everyday” just fade away. This is the kind of experience that comes from being at Camp WANNAGOAGAIN!, a two-week summer camp run by Johnston’s non-profit organization, The Autism Project.
Each week plays host to a different group of children, teens and young adults with autism. Alongside staff and volunteers, campers have the opportunity to participate in a structured group setting. With activities like paddle boats, unified sports, arts and crafts, and a swimming pool, the fun never ends.
“I have the opportunity to work with some of best kiddos around”, says Camp Director Gina Marini. “The minute we step onto camp grounds and welcome dozens of returning and new campers – we recognize the fruit of our labor. Smiling faces, waving hands and happy campers make our hard work all worth it.”
“Our purpose has always been to provide a safe, supported and fun camp experience for children, teens and young adults with an autism spectrum disorder.”
The structure of camp is designed with this mission statement in mind. Campers are split up into five groups based on the age of campers, which ranges from 5 to 22 years old. In order to provide each camper with an equal level of support and attention, the staff to camper ratio is kept at 1:1. Staff members stick with the same campers all week in order to build rapport, making it easier to try new experiences and venture out of their comfort zone.
Caren Skurka, an occupational therapist and social skills group manager at The Autism Project says, “The staff, at every level, are experts at providing the structure and predictability for the campers that they need to feel comfortable from the beginning to be able to relax and enjoy their week.”
During camp, groups follow their own schedule, transitioning from one activity to the next. Each day has its own “special activity,” from a karate lesson with Sensei Mike to drumming lessons with the Rhode Island Philharmonic.
With the cooking activity, campers get the chance to follow recipes to make delicious snacks. Yoga lessons with Caren give everyone a chance to calm their mind and body. Of course, camp would be incomplete without some campfire songs (Don’t forget the S’mores!).
A huge part of the camp experience is the Camp Leadership Training program. The “CLTs” spend their day at camp helping out by bringing supplies where they are needed, running the camp store, and hanging out with the groups. Watching a child grow from a camper to a young leader is part of what makes camp so special. At the end of the day, that is what camp is all about: fostering independence, developing life and vocational skills, and (most importantly) having fun.
All the work that goes into making camp a reality would be for nothing without the campers. The happiness and joy that each child brings makes all the hard work worth it.
“I’ve been waiting for this all year!” is a pretty common phrase to hear on the first day. Deb Langevin is the Training and Consultation Coordinator at The Autism Project, and her 21-year-old son Josh has been at camp since the beginning. “It’s incredible that my son has access to a typical summer camp experience that is completely catered to his needs. Every year, the staff gives 150 percent.” The campers are not the only ones that “WANNAGOAGAIN!”; Katie Beckett, Assistant Camp Director, has returned for her tenth year. “It is the most rewarding summer job I could ask for. I get to experience moments of seeing campers making friends, smiling, giving each other high fives, and, most importantly, having a place where they can be themselves and feel accepted.”
Camp WANNAGOAGAIN! is the culmination of many years of hard work from parents, volunteers, and staff members. Fifteen years ago, the Autism Project hired Joanne Quinn as Executive Director. Her job was to take the grassroots program and grow it into an independent non-profit that could provide support for children with autism, their families, and the many professionals that support them. A summer camp was the first direct-service program The Autism Project developed. The first year, six children attended. Today, camp services more than 100 children each summer.
Attendance at the camp, which is located at Cub World Scout Camp in Pascoag, runs for two weeks from July 31 until August 11. A $75 deposit is required, followed by a payment of $400 for the camp. Should one to one staffing be required, an additional fee of $400 is necessary. Transportation, if needed, costs $100. However, donor camperships are available and have brought the costs down to as little as $25. Medicare can also help cover costs.
Joanne sums it up perfectly, “Why have I been doing camp for 14 years? I think a 6-year-old camper in yellow group said it best on Monday. “Mom, I’m going to camp until I’m a Tie-Dye camper (18)!” I’ll make sure camp is here for him and all the other children, teens, and adults who need camp in their lives.”
Photos taken by Deb Langevin