Summer camp for autistic kids saved

Moms group raises more than $27,000 to help cover costs

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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The call for help went out, and the money came pouring in, from people struck by the story of the Summer Sensory Camp -- the area's only camp for children with autism that had been canceled this spring due to Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation budget cuts.

It came from a couple who plunked down $750 at the Vancouver Farmers Market. It came from more than $500 from the students in a fifth-grade class at Helen Baller Elementary in Camas, who sold charity bracelets. It flowed in at a concert and silent auction.

In the end, a group of about a dozen dedicated moms did what they thought might be impossible: They raised more than $27,000 in about a month to keep their beloved camp open at least one more season.

The feeling has left them feeling "total gratitude, tearful gratitude."

"I cannot believe it. It touches me so deeply to see our children are such valued members of our community," said April Sutherland, whose son Liam, 11, has attended the camp every year since it opened in 2009. "It's very touching — you get so involved in your own little home and your own struggles with you child — to see the community response."

The seven-week day camp is the only one of its kind in the metro area, and serves kids 12 and under, featuring one-on-one counseling and activities built to accommodate campers' disabilities.

Faced with $1.2 million in budget cuts, parks staff canceled the camp in March due to its high expense and low cost recovery.

But distraught parents mobilized instantly, flooding the city council and management with emails and calls, ultimately working with parks and recreation and the Vancouver-Clark Parks Foundation to raise money.

They offered bracelets reading "Sensory Camp Rocks" and "I love someone with Autism" for a $5 donation, created a Facebook

page for donations and canvassed the Vancouver Farmers Market. The older brother of a camp participant offered his band, Known As Anonymous, to perform a benefit concert May 19, and raised nearly $7,000.

The city of Vancouver and the Vancouver school district also helped the cause, by offering staff and facilities at a reduced fee.

Recreation Director Vicki Vanneman said the women's dedication was a pleasant and welcome surprise.

"We're just so struck by their commitment to their children and their collective effort to get this done," Vanneman said. "It's remarkable that they were able to raise that kind of money in such a short period of time. We're thrilled, we're ready to go, we're hiring staff and getting prepared for this."

Instead of paying for more than 62 percent of the camp's costs, the city will contribute just 10 percent, or about $6,300, Vanneman said. That money, along with the $27,000 from fundraising, camp fees and a small donation for art supplies, will cover the estimated $63,000 cost, she said.

Registration for the camp, which will start July 2 at Minnehaha Elementary School, opens today. Campers will pay $170 a week, up from the prior $146 weekly fee.

But the moms' -- and city's -- work to keep the camp open beyond summer 2012 doesn't end here: Vancouver will facilitate meetings between parents, nonprofits and others to find a way to make sure there's a Summer Sensory Camp in 2013 and beyond.

And though Sutherland said the group is tired from its fundraising blitz, members are committed to making it happen.

"We're trying to get all these people who have some wisdom together, to try and figure out what would be best option to sustain the camp," she said.

Andrea Damewood:360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.