Xavier Borden is autistic. But the 8-year old enjoyed summer camp like his neuro-typical peers thanks to a special camp sponsored by YMCA of the Suncoast Hernando School Age Program.
Camp Coast completed its sixth year Friday. Fifteen campers, each diagnosed with some form of autism or a related disability, were given a chance to participate in a camp customized for them. The camp is held each summer at the Sandhill Boy Scout Camp on Cortez Boulevard.
Xavier’s mother, Megan Borden, said it was difficult at first to let her son attend the camp. Xavier is her eldest child and she understandably is protective. She had heard about Camp Coast last year and decided to give it a try.
“They are so loving,” Borden said about the staff running Camp Coast. “They were prepared for everything.”
Her son was excited about his experience each day when Meghan picked him up. “I’m not sure what his favorite part was,” she said, because he seemed excited throughout the week.
Nerrisa Ortiz, managing director of YMCA of the Suncoast Hernando’s School Age Program, has organized Camp Coast for three years. The program provides five days of intensive camp-related activities intended to fit the needs of autistic children.
Senses and sensory input were utilized at the camp, with themes centering on heavy tactile stimulation through touching. Campers crafted bird houses, played with cloud foam and created food art during their week.
“They made canvas art by melting crayons with a blow dryer,” Ortiz said, an activity that received high marks from campers.
They also were exposed to activities sponsored by community businesses and organizations. The Hernando Fire Corps brought out their “Smokehouse” and gave the children a demonstration before taking them through it. Karen’s Spirit in Motion taught them a dance routine. The Inspire Foundation blended musical talents by introducing campers to the magic of music with violins, keyboards and other instruments. The Hernando County Library system provided story time, among other activities.
This year the camp was scheduled for one week with 15 campers and a student to counselor ratio of 3-to-1. The cost was $110 per student, with scholarships offered for those who qualified.
Nine students attended with scholarships, Ortiz said. Fundraising events took place to support the scholarships, including local restaurants offering percentages of food sales on certain nights to support Camp Coast. There also was a Bowling for a Cause event, and additional funding came through C.A.U.S.E., a local autism support group.
The response this year was more than Ortiz had expected, prompting Camp Coast organizers to consider expanding to two weeks next year.
“We started out with two weeks,” Ortiz said. But a previous lack of interest and funding prompted the decision to hold it for one week.
Matteo and Maximo Gaspar-Carire, ages 9 and 10, respectively, are brothers with moderate- to high-functioning autism. The boys attended Camp Coast last year for the first time after trying a typical summer camp program. They didn’t do well in the typical program, said their mother, Lorraine Carire.
Camp Coast, by contrast, appealed to the boys’ exceptionalities. “They came home excited every day,” she said. The groups were smaller and the ratio of child to camp counselor was tight.
Deanna Earles helps coordinate fundraising for Camp Coast. A mother of a 9-year-old with autism, Earles said she believes in Camp Coast because it allows children such as her son to participate in a camp experience with smaller groups and in a controlled atmosphere.
“They do everything other campers do,” Earles said. “But they do it in a much smaller ratio.”
Ortiz said she is passionate about Camp Coast because of the effect it has on these special kids. “Getting to know these kids’ special needs has always touched my heart,” she said. “I do it for them.”