A fifth year of 'life saving' at Sensory Camp

Kids who are overwhelmed by stimulus have a place to play safely, thanks to dedication, generosity

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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photoJon Cook shows Tonja Cole what he would like to do next at Sensory Camp on Monday. The staff use visual cues to help children communicate their wants. "I just enjoy these kids," said Cole. "It's a fun job."

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Debbie McGrath stood in a doorway and pointed out her son, Ryan, who was in a darkened classroom Monday with a half-dozen other campers. Ryan was tossing a large rubber ball to a camp staff member, while a few kids were curled up on mats on the floor, hiding under blankets. One child silently played in a small ball pit.

It's a "low-stim" room, McGrath explained. It plays a key role in Sensory Camp because it provides a safe space in which easily overstimulated children can calm down, or, with the help of knowledgeable staff, be calmed down.

"When kids need a break, they need a break," said camp director Lauren Mizrahi, who during the school year works as an autism behavior consultant.

Sensory Camp, a seven-week program for children ages 5 to 13 who have an autism spectrum disorder or other sensory integration disorders, started Monday at Minnehaha Elementary School. It runs through Aug. 16.

In its fifth year, the camp has survived because of dedicated parents and a generous community.

The camp was canceled in March 2012, when Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation was cutting $1.2 million from its budget. The camp has high expenses, relative to other summer camps, and low cost-recovery. But mothers rallied and raised more than $27,000 to keep the camp open, and they were successful again this year.

Three of the mothers -- April Sutherland, Beth Pederson and Sara Brandon -- received a statewide citation of merit from the Washington Recreation and Parks Association in April.

While the parks department runs the camp, the Parks Foundation of Clark County has stepped in to accept donations and Vancouver Public Schools charges the camp only the cost of supplies, such as paper towels, toilet paper and soap. The camp used to be at Hough Elementary School, but moved to Minnehaha, which, blissfully, has air-conditioning -- even though kids do go outside to cool down with water.

The camp runs 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily and costs $170 a week. Thirty-three kids are registered each week, with as many as 10 on a weekly waiting list, said Dave Perlick, recreation manager. It's the only public camp in the area designed to accommodate children with autism spectrum disorder, Perlick said.

The camp has received greater recognition because of its budget woes, and Perlick said in addition to trying to find more stable funding, he'd like the program to be able to accommodate more children. It added a few spots this year, as last year the camp averaged 29 children a week.

Since the children need greater supervision and some need one-on-one care, the camp has 24 staff members.

Revenue for the $66,000 camp breaks down as follows: approximately $38,000 in registration fees, $15,000 in donations, $3,000 in state grants for eligible children and $11,000 from the city of Vancouver. The city used to pay for more than 60 percent of the camp's costs.

'I became a believer'

A few years ago, McGrath enrolled Ryan in a standard summer camp. It did not go well. Loud noises bother him -- the sound of a siren will cause him to crouch in a corner and cry -- and he didn't have the adult supervision he needs.

But Ryan, 11, loves Sensory Camp. He loves water play and has become friends with other campers, said McGrath, who lives in Vancouver.

McGrath said Ryan hasn't been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, but he's on a waiting list to be evaluated at Doernbecher Children's Hospital at Oregon Health & Science University. Ryan has delayed gross motor skills, fine motor skills and social skills, and takes special-education classes, she said.

She feels fortunate to have Ryan at the camp, and glad she's met other parents through the program.

At meetings to discuss ways to raise money, she doesn't have to worry what other mothers will think about Ryan's behavior.

"They get that Ryan is going to run around," she said. "They know it doesn't mean he's a bad kid or I'm a bad mom."

As an example of community generosity, McGrath was wearing a "Sensory Camp" T-shirt, which was designed and made at cost by Tammy Scott of Scott Pro Ink. Her husband, Dave Scott, has a business called White Crest Software and he designed a camp website for free.

The website, http://sensorycamp.org, has a link for people to donate, McGrath said, and photographs from past years.

McGrath and other parents, knowing how exhausting their children can be, marvel at the patience of staff members, who are specially trained to meet campers' needs. About 80 percent of the campers have autism spectrum disorder, Mizrahi said, while others have different conditions including Down Syndrome or cerebral palsy.

Each child has a notebook with a list of the day's activities, and they get marked on how well they participated and followed directions.

Sutherland's son Liam, 12, has attended the camp since it started in 2009. She had her doubts before the first day.

"I was afraid nobody would be able to manage my child," said Sutherland, a Camas resident.

Liam has severe autism, and the family doesn't take summer vacations because of the stress it would cause Liam, she said. Even going out to a restaurant can be a challenge.

Within the first week of the first year of camp, however, "I became a believer." She's comfortable leaving Liam at camp, and loves the fact that it gives her quality time with her 14-year-old son, Ethan, who has a high-functioning form of autism. She can take Ethan places he'd otherwise never go, such as downtown Portland or the Oregon Zoo.

"These are the reasons we fight for this camp," Sutherland said. "It really is life-saving."

Pederson, another of the mothers recognized by the Washington Recreation and Parks Association, had the same initial doubt as Sutherland. The camp was recommended by a school counselor when her son Sam, now 13, attended Hough.

"I was apprehensive that he could be at a camp," she said. Her son has a nonverbal type of autism, although he uses sign language. At home, he doesn't like to go outside, but he'll go outside and play at the camp. Her husband works, and she works from home, so without Sensory Camp she's not sure how Sam would spend his summer.

Sam doesn't know, either. Each year the children receive a camp memory book, Pederson said.

"He'll go and get his camp book and put it in my face," and she'll show him how long he has to wait for camp.


Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.