Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Almost two years ago I had a dream. The dream was to find a place where my son with Autism would fit in and be just what he was, a child. A place where he could be free to be just himself. Not the autistic kid or the quirky kid or the difficult, angry, depressed kid, just Matthew, the funny, artistic, smart, sensitive kid who just wanted a real friend. The kind of place that he would remember fondly as the place where he could use his imagination and create art the way he saw it, a place where he could attempt to climb the biggest tree or catch his first fish with a pole or learn how to overcome his biggest fears, the fear of never belonging, the fear of rejection, the fear of not knowing the right thing to say or how to express his feelings. A place that most of have known and experienced, a place that we can go back to anytime we want to and remember some of the good things about our childhood. A place like, summercamp. I searched the internet for days and much to my dismay could find nothing designed specifically for children with a primary diagnosis of Autism, Asperger's Syndrome or related developmental disability in Richmond or even the state of Virginia. It was during one of these very frustrating moments that the inner voice that we all hear at one point in time or another said "go ahead, you get something started". My first reaction was to chuckle and then of course the arguement ensued. Sure, I thought, great idea, I have no clue on how to start a summer camp. I know nothing about non-profits, I am a single mom with two children under the age of 12 and I need a full time job with benefits! However, by the next day I was reading everything I could about how to start a non-proft, summer camps and activities for children with Autism. Call it insanity or a leap in faith (I personally choose the latter!)but in August 2011, Richmond Autism Integration Network(RAIN)was "born" and on June 29, 2012 (not quite a year later) I officially resigned from my full time State of Virgina job with benefits to open Camp Free2BMe. The vision of a summer day camp experience gradually became more clear as creative, passionate board members joined the team. What makes Camp Free2BMe unique is the design. We wanted non-autistic children who know very little, if anything, about autism to learn about their peers. We decided to pair two non-autistic children with one child with autism. We train them in Autism 101. We then go out into the community to do fun things as a group. The non-autistic children learn about their peers and will take this positive experience back to their schools in the fall. All of our non-autistic youth are volunteers from the local middle and high schools. They will receive school credit for their time but they will also recieve a priceless education about Autism. Our Autistic youth will be given the opportunity to be who they are and to learn social skills from their peers. Everyone is so excited about camp! Our biggest need right now is the same as anyone else's, funding. We need a bus. That is our biggest expense and our biggest challenge. Many in the community have offered discount rates for activities. We have Laser Quest, bowling, Putt-Putt, therapeutic horseback riding,a vertical tree climb and canoeing at Pocahontas State Park on our to do list! As a woman of extreme faith, I know that this is going to be an amazing summer for our campers, their peer buddies and all of the families that are involved. I figure if God can part the Red Sea then he can cetainly provide us with a bus! As I begin this new journey of faith (and lots of chocolate!) I will keep you posted with pictures and camp experiences. Feel free to check out our web site: www.RichmondAutism.Org and give a shout out to us anytime. We also are happy to accept donations. All donations are needed and appreciated! Whether it is a gift of time , talent or monetary, we will never turn your giving away, just as we never turn away a child that needs our camp. Regardless of finances, we always work with our families!