Children with Autism Enjoy Summer Fun at Camp FRIEND

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – For most children, attending a summer camp is all about making new friends and engaging in interesting, fun activities.

Children with autism attending Camp FRIEND (Finding Rewards In Every New Day), want nothing different.

The day camp held at the Jewish Community Center started 10 years ago and offers students a chance to swim, participate in music and art, make and enjoy snacks, play games, run in the gym or on the playground outside and just enjoy age-appropriate activities.

Yet for Camp FRIEND, there is at least one support counselor for every two campers, including four Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) who, with intervention specialists and others, are able to navigate the transitions and unpredictable behaviors that come along with autism. 

Those attending the camp are ages 5 through 19 from Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties, and each may come with different challenges. Some require more support than others.

By the end of the week, counselors know them well and how best to support them to overcome those challenges.

“Every year we have some of the same campers,” said Robin Suzelis, director of the Autism Society of the Mahoning Valley, the organization responsible for the unique camp. “Every year, we have brand new campers who we have never met. We have a nice mix of kids who come from Rich Center, Potential [Development] and public schools.”

Suzelis notes her own two sons attend public school but would find it challenging to fit in well at any other summer camps. They spend two weeks each year at Camp FRIEND. The camp invites those with autism but is also open to their siblings or friends.

Suzelis points out the camp is funded by The Youngstown Foundation, which allows them to offer it at a low price. “We don’t want finances to be a reason why a kid can’t come to this camp,” Suzelis said, adding she is also grateful to the counselors who take two weeks out of their summers to support the children there.

“I can tell you that for autism parents, summers are long,” Suzelis said. “It’s hard for parents to work. It’s hard to get a break. The kids need their schedules.”

Additionally, Suzelis said it can be tough for a parent with one child on the autism spectrum and other children at home to fulfill the needs with summer activities for all of them.

“The siblings always kind of seem to be the forgotten ones,” said Kelly Long, board director with the Autism Society of the Mahoning Valley, who has twin daughters with autism and a 12-year-old son. “I can go spend time with my son, so he doesn’t feel forgotten and left out because the whole house is run by the girls’ needs.

But additionally, it is good for the twins, who get a chance to do something different and engage with others for a week. Some of the students at Camp FRIEND are nonverbal, while others enjoy socializing. And it can be a benefit to meet others who may be able to empathize with them.

A camper works on an art project during the day camp held at the Jewish Community Center.

It is not unusual to see a group of children at this camp continue working on a group activity, while another student takes a few moments away to engage in a coping strategy activity or to calm down with a member of the support staff. Unlike other places the children may go, this is not disruptive to the others.

“I think if they see another child having a hard time, they understand that because they might be going through the same thing at another point later in the week, whereas typical students might not understand what they are going through,” said Mary Brown, camp program coordinator.

The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders reports 1 in 3 people with autism are socially isolated. Brown points out in a typical environment, these students might get left out of activities, but with more support from the experienced staff, students are given the opportunity to fully participate.

“We do a lot of things that you would experience at a typical summer camp,” Brown said. “I think the unique part of Camp FRIEND is the staff support and expertise from individuals who work with individuals with autism every single day.”

Brown said they provide the children with social needs and behavioral needs with support they need, such as visual schedules and extra transitional time between activities. Outside providers such as SMARTS, F5RS Therapy Bunnies, Gymsters and In Harmony Therapeutic Services and the local police and fire departments come into the camp to provide activities.

A camper creates a painting with masking tape and bingo daubers.

An art project through SMARTS included creating a painting with masking tape and bingo daubers, which does not require a lot of fine motor skills and can provide easy success, Suzelis said. Students engage in some activities geared toward shorter attention spans in groups that progress as they age.

The teenage students have more opportunities to get out into the community together. At the end of the week, they went bowling together at Holiday Bowl in Struthers. They also walked to a nearby Save A Lot grocery store with a list of items they were buying to later prepare a snack for the campers. 

Some of them have grown up attending the camp each year.

“We’re trying to teach them all those life skills that are really important,” Brown said, noting that during the trip to Save A Lot, they are practicing safety skills such as walking while staying with the adults, following a list and purchasing items at a store. “So all of those skills, we hope to give them those life skills in addition to the socialization that they get.”

A second week of Camp FRIEND will be held in August.

Pictured at top: A counselor watches as campers participate in a project at Camp FRIEND.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.