Whether it was a family vacation to a new place, an adventure at overnight camp or my first job as a tour guide in a local park, summer was always a special time for me as a child. My parents encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone and try something new. And these experiences are part of who I am today. Alberta Stewart wants the same for her son, Drew.
Eleven year-old Drew is a gentle-hearted child. He has a smile and hug for everyone he meets. Yet finding opportunities for him to enjoy the summer can be difficult. At three years old he was diagnosed with Autism. Locally there are not many summer programs for children like him. And in reality, Drew would much prefer to stay at home in his comfort zone.
Alberta recognizes that for Drew’s world to expand, she must gently push beyond his boundaries. While there is an associated risk with this approach, she knows the benefits will be life changing. “Four years ago we found Camp T.A.L.K. and it was just what Drew needed. It is such a magical place where he has had the opportunity to develop as a person and have fun too,” shared Alberta.
Recognizing the need for a special summer experience for children who have a diagnosis of Asperger’s Autism, Autism Level 1 or PDD-NOS, Karissa and David Cockrell founded Camp T.A.L.K. in 2009. This independent day camp, which is held at Willow Ridge Church in Lexington, is an inclusive program for ages 10 and up. Campers practice social skills and build friendships in a highly supervised and safe setting by participating in traditional camp activities such as field trips, team building games, sports, music, movement, crafts and more.
A camp, such as Camp T.A.L.K., would not be possible without lots of volunteer support. The ratio of staff to campers varies depending on the child’s age. For the older campers there is a 1 staff person to 3 campers ratio. In addition each older camper is matched with a peer mentor who serves as a role model. The younger campers require a 1 to 1 staff person to camper ratio.
Camp TALK’s dedicated staff includes teachers, parents / family members of kids on the Autism spectrum, therapists and interns from local colleges and universities. In addition music therapists, dancers, and artists visit for special programming. Karissa is humbled to see all of these people who volunteer for the kids.
“T.A.L.K. is all about relationships and these individuals are at the core of forming connections with the children and their families,” she said.
“Karissa is so very skilled at collecting volunteers who accept the children as they are and encourage them to reach beyond. The staff provides the campers with skills and then they offer real life hands-on experiences for them to practice these skills. Social interaction is tough for our kids and this is a primary focus for their time at Camp T.A.L.K.,” reflected Alberta.
Alberta recalls how difficult it was for Drew the first year he went to camp. He did not want to go and was not happy…it was tough for both of them until he got there. It didn’t take long for him to realize Camp T.A.L.K. was the place for him. Now in his fourth year he is eager to go.
Thanks to Camp T.A.L.K. Drew is able to have a camp experience like other children. He enjoys all the activities especially canoeing. He has made friends and even has a pen pal. Drew is learning the fine art of letter writing, a skill we could all benefit from in this age of emails and texts.
And while Camp T.A.L.K. has become a place within Drew’s comfort zone, the staff keeps pushing the boundaries to expand his world. “His development has been remarkable,” shared Alberta. “He has even tackled his fear of dogs and enjoyed meeting Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services’ therapy dogs when they visited camp.”
Camp T.A.L.K. has expanded its reach by offering some additional year-round activities for the children and their families. One of their favorite outings is visiting the South Carolina Railroad Museum in Winnsboro. Many of the children are enamored with trains. When I asked Drew about his favorite part of Camp T.A.L.K., he immediately said “The trains!”
Camp T.A.L.K.’s philosophy is that the opportunities for their campers are boundless. “At the end of day when parents come to pick up their child, I have seen them with tears in their eyes. They just can’t believe their child is playing,” said Karissa. “We always focus on telling parents something positive about their child. Unfortunately, most of them are not used to hearing the good things. I like to tell them that Autism gives kids different abilities and each of them have so much to offer.”
For more information about Camp T.A.L.K., please visit www.camptalk.org or call 803.466.7387.