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Children's Health

A Camp Like No Other

A Chatham County camp for all ranges of the autism spectrum provides a summer to remember for happy campers.

This “classic” story was originally published on Aug. 3, 2012.

By Kelsey Tsipis

Mary Sumeracki admits she was a bit concerned dropping her son off for his first overnight summer camp.

“I expected a call from him right away that he wanted to come home,” said Sumeracki.

Mary’s 16-year-old son, Thomas, was diagnosed last November with Asperger’s syndrome. In the past, he has had trouble making friends and controlling his frustration and is accustomed to being the target of high school bullies.

Sara Gage, the director of Camp Royall, shows off the organic vegetable garden on the camp's grounds.

Sara Gage, the director of Camp Royall, shows off the organic vegetable garden on the camp’s grounds. Photo credit: Kelsey Tsipis

But Thomas never called to come home. In fact, he was too busy to call at all.

Instead, during his week at Camp Royall, a camp designed specifically for people of all ages across the autism spectrum, Thomas was engaged, sociable and even a leader. For seven days, he swam, made sure everyone was included in basketball games and hung out with friends on the 133-acre facility located in rural Chatham County.

Thomas was one of 30 campers that attended a “high-functioning teen week” this summer at Camp Royall. The Autism Society of North Carolina built the camp in 1997, and it now serves about 350 campers over 10 weeks each summer. Each camper is paired with a counselor who’s trained for 10 days prior to camp. This year, the camp’s youngest attendee was 4 years old, while the oldest was 67.

While demand for services like Camp Royall is growing, money to expand isn’t. The camp currently has a waiting list of more than 200 people. Campers are chosen via a blind lottery. After that, the society makes a determination if the family is able to pay $1,600 for the week. For families that can’t scrape together that kind of money, scholarships are available. This summer, $152,000 in scholarships went to give campers the opportunity to have the summer camp experience.

KIds play in the pool at Camp Royall, a camp for people with autism of all ages run by the Autism Society of North Carolina. Photo: Kelsey Tsipis

KIds play in the pool at Camp Royall, a camp for people with autism of all ages run by the Autism Society of North Carolina. Photo: Kelsey Tsipis

The camp’s director, Sara Gage, who started as a counselor 16 years ago, said these scholarships are especially important because one-third of the campers come from families living on less than $10,000 a year, oftentimes because the child requires a parent to stay home and provide constant care.

“We’ve never had to turn anyone down because of money and we don’t choose campers according to high or low functioning,” said Tracey Sheriff, CEO of the Autism Society of North Carolina. “Unless there is a serious medical condition, we’re able to accommodate campers with all needs.”

All are welcome

Camp Royall can be a welcome relief for families, especially those accustomed to 24/7 care for their loved ones. Mary Sumeracki, who has stopped working, said she has handled Thomas’ behavior almost entirely herself.

“I started noticing differences when he hit 2 years old,” she said. “So since he was 3 years old, I’ve been dealing with his education, why he’s so far behind, fighting with the school system to get the help he needs, trying to hold him back because he’s not getting it.

“In many ways, I feel like I’m on my own.”

The program started in the early 1970s when a group of parents and children camped in a backyard for a week. Now Camp Royall is the nation’s oldest and largest summer camp program for people with autism. Gage says the camp is a rare opportunity for autistic children of all ages to have a normal summer camp experience.

Thomas and his friend were known as the "Dynamic Duo"

Thomas and his friend were known as the Dynamic Duo. Photo credit: Kelsey Tsipis.

“They need it more than anyone,” she said.

Sumeracki was thrilled to provide the same summer camp experience for Thomas that her two older daughters had.

“During the summer, when he’s at home he watches a lot of TV,” she said. “With him, it’s difficult because he has no friends and it’s something to do. He’s very much a homebody. He doesn’t like change.”

But Thomas thrived with the structured days and planned activities at camp. Every cabin has a mapped-out plan for the day: morning camp songs, pool time, shower.

Thomas also said he made a good friend the first day of camp. He and his new friend, Alex, became known as the Dynamic Duo.

“The only reason for this camp is to make friends and have fun,” said Thomas after camp. “It’s less difficult because there’s so many kids I can meet and become friends with.”

Time to show off

One of the camp’s traditions is a weekly talent show. As parents come to the site on Friday afternoons to pick up their campers, they get to see the group show off.

On Friday, campers sang songs, did face-painting, told jokes and hustled through obstacle courses. Sumeracki watched her son interacting with more friends in one hour than he has previously in an entire year.

Thomas and his mom on the last day of camp.

Thomas and his mom on the last day of camp. Photo credit: Kelsey Tsipis

“I missed him, but he needed this,” she said, as Thomas made his way through an obstacle course of hula hoops and tires. “This was a big deal for us.”

To an outsider, Thomas was just an excited, engaged teenaged boy at camp this week. But for Sumeracki, it’s been a 13-year battle to see him this happy. Prior to his diagnosis, she was often told by Thomas’ teachers that he was just lazy. She and her husband even tried a private military school three hours away.

“The socializing aspect of this camp is the best thing ever,” Sumeracki said. “It’s the only place that there are other kids like him and it’s OK. It’s a place where he’s not being bullied or constantly being made fun of.”

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