Budget cuts ax camp for special-needs kids

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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photoAnna Rolfe displays the projects she made in a special summer camp for kids with autism. Budget cuts mean the end of the camp.

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Every summer for the past three years, 12-year-old Anna Rolfe has spent her summer at day camp, just like many other kids her age.

Like other kids, she looks forward to reuniting with old friends, going on field trips, bringing home crafts; she can’t wait to tackle her day.

“She knows the way, and when we’re getting close, she’s smiling, giggling and happy,” said her mother, Alice Rolfe, who drives Anna every morning. “Once she gets there, she hops out — and she doesn’t even look back.”

Unlike other kids, Anna has autism. She’s nonverbal and must be supervised at all times. And unlike other kids, regular children’s camps overwhelm her and cause bad reactions.

Since 2009, Anna and other autistic and special-needs children have had a summertime option: the city of Vancouver’s Summer Fun Sensory Camp, the only one of its kind in the Portland metro area.

“It’s her hope,” Alice Rolfe said. “They’re not judged for their behavior. If they scream, if they hit their heads on the wall, they’re accepted.”

This year, however, the 50-plus families who rely on the eight-week camp found out this month that they’ll have to make other plans. The camp was eliminated in the last round of budget cuts.

Vancouver has been grappling with its budget, particularly in the parks department, where staff has been cut in half since 2008. The Vancouver City Council decided Tuesday that it will seek a property tax levy in November to restore some services and keep the department solvent.

At the start of 2012, the Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation Department announced another $1.2 million shortfall, and officials cautioned programs -- particularly those that don’t recover the money it costs to provide them -- would be gone come spring.

The Summer Fun Sensory Camp, for ages 6 to 12, had just a 38 percent cost recovery to the city: Vancouver spent $78,015 to provide it in 2011, and brought in $29,347.

$800,000 in cuts

The sensory camp was among the $800,000 in reductions from the department’s spring recreation guide, set to mail next month. Camps for autistic kids ages 13 and up remain.

Parents of the 50-plus kids who participate in the sensory camp say they weren’t even given a chance to try saving what’s become a beacon of summer for their family. They’ve launched a campaign to save the camp, lobbying media and city officials to hear their cause.

But it’s not clear that their efforts will ultimately succeed.

“Please understand that we continue to face the challenges of economic instability and its impact on our programs, across the city,” City Manager Eric Holmes replied in an email to concerned parents. “We are working hard to minimize the impacts, but regrettably have few other options.”

Some students will be able to attend camps at the Firstenburg and Marshall community centers, with one-on-one mentors to aid them. For others who need more care, like Anna Rolfe, there’s nothing.

As a nurse with the Camas School District, April Sutherland said she understands how shaky public finances are these days.

What she doesn’t get is how a program that means so much to kids who need it so badly is the one that gets the ax.

Her son, Liam, 11, is nonverbal but uses some words. Among those that get repeated over and over again are the names of the camp counselors.

“In his mind, this is not an optional thing,” Sutherland said. “They’re like family to him. He wants me to draw them.”

Sutherland, like many other parents, said they were upset city staff didn’t contact them to try and solve the problem. They could pay more than the $146 a week fee; field trips could be eliminated; more volunteers could be used, parents argue.

“It’s hard to express just the huge impact this would be,” she said. “I feel devastated about this.”

Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation staff said Friday that with the shortfalls announced in January and hundreds of programs to evaluate in just weeks, it wasn’t possible to contact everyone involved.

‘Intense process’

“It was a pretty intense process, but we did not engage the specific participants in regard to any of the cuts,” Recreation Director Vicki Vanneman said, adding they did meet with the recreation advisory committee and most of the parks staff. “Time was working against us in that regard.”

The Summer Fun Sensory Camp and other Access to Recreation programs for people with disabilities were cut at a slightly lower rate than overall programs, parks Business Manager Dave Perlick said. Overall, recreation programs were cut by 22 percent; Access to Recreation programs were cut by 18 percent.

Decisions weren’t easy, he said.

“We have aggressive cost recovery goals built into our budget,” said Perlick, noting that two-thirds of the cost of running the city’s recreation centers and classes are covered by user fees. “There just weren’t any easy answers. We acknowledge that most of the cuts are really going to impact people.”

Late Friday afternoon, Parks and Recreation Director Pete Mayer said it has been a heart-rending process.

“There are no more rabbits out of the hat --we’ve lost 60 staff, and that does equate to inability to deliver programs,” Mayer said. “It’s really important for the (city) council to hear from those impacted. (Without new money), we may continue along a course that doesn’t produce any better outcomes.”

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