Sensory camp, pumpkin patch cater to special-needs kids

By Dave Kern, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

 
photoAlice Rolfe

Rojo the therapy llama and 3-year-old Owen Miles made a connection Sunday, sharing a carrot at the Very Special Pumpkin Patch.

Jamie Miles explained that her son is a special needs child who is nonverbal. She knows his needs by his facial expressions and sounds. "It's challenging and rewarding," she said. "It's a different outlook on life."

"It's normal for us," said Owen's dad, Matt Miles.

The pumpkin patch at the home of Georgia and Bill Paresa was alive with more than 150 happy children and parents Sunday afternoon at the fundraiser for Sensory Camp.

The city paid for Sensory Camp until budget woes last year forced parents to raise $29,000 to put on the seven-week program for kids with special needs to be together.

Sensory Camp was created in 2009 to provide a safe, structured and engaging environment for kids with special needs, organizers say. The camp is for children 5 to 12, and there are 25 staff members led by Lauren Mizrahi.

"Sensory Camp is about accepting everyone for who they are," Mizrahi said. "They end up teaching me a lot."

"It (the camp) is a perfect environment," said Alice Rolfe of Vancouver. Her daughter, Anna, 12, has severe autism. Her son, Samuel, has mild autism.

Debbie McGrath smiled Sunday and said her 10-year-old, Ryan, was having a blast at the pumpkin patch.

"He's running in circles through the haunted house," she said.

A nurse, McGrath said parents of special needs children are "strong and patient … you have to be."

She said Ryan is in the special education class at Riverview Elementary School in the Evergreen school district. "For the most part, (other students) are very accepting."

She said teachers encourage students to find out "what they can learn from each other."

Georgia and Bill Paresa adopted 11-year-old Robbie when he was 8.

"Robbie loves camp," Georgia said. Besides donations and tuition, the camp receives help from the Parks Foundation and the city of Vancouver. It was held at Minnehaha Elementary School last summer. A venue is not set for the 2013 camp.

Georgia said Robbie is nonverbal and family members have learned sign language to communicate with him. "Paul (his 20-year-old brother) has been learning sign since we got Robbie," she said. The couple have four boys.

"It (camp) is a lifesaver for the families and the kids," said Beth Pederson of her autistic son Sam, 12. She says he knows some sign language and, "He carries his iPad everywhere."

Pederson said Discovery Middle School where Sam attends is "amazing."

She praised the work of his teacher, Laura Hamilton.

The children demonstrated plenty of love for Rojo and Smokey, the llamas.

Lori Gregory of Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas said the animals have made nearly 600 visits in the last five years.

"We visit all kinds of kids with autism and mental-emotional issues," Gregory said.

At midafternoon, the haunted house was busy and the rock group Lewis & Clark was entertaining.

It seemed appropriate for the event when they played The Beatles' classic "Come Together."