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Camp SOAR continues to expand

Dee Griffin, 46, has gone to camp for the past 13 years, participating in fitness activities and arts and crafts.

And for the second year, Griffin has also had the chance to work at Camp SOAR, a week-long program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The first two days of the camp at the Levine Jewish Community Center are for ages 26 and up, and the next two days are for ages 25 and under. Friday, the last day, was a celebration for all ages.

Bob Bowler, the director of the camp and Special Olympics volunteer, started SOAR (Special Olympics Athletic Retreat) 13 years ago to give Special Olympics athletes something to do over the summer.

Bowler said therapeutic camps are often too expensive and cap their numbers. A lot of the traditional camps are not accepting to people with disabilities.

When the camp first opened it had 54 campers, but it has grown to serve almost 400 campers and it has just as many volunteers.

And Bowler never says “No.”

Next year, he said he is planning two weeks of Camp SOAR: one week for the older campers at the JCC and another week for the younger group at Charlotte Catholic High School.

Griffin, like many other campers her age, wanted to work for the camp, so Bowler started letting the older campers help out the younger campers later in the week.

“It gives them some responsibility,” Bowler said.

Griffin was able to help set up this year’s arts and crafts activity, which was a project for the Wounded Warriors at Camp Bragg. The campers put together 100 art kits and decorated pillow cases, wooden hearts and foam stars for the soldiers. They also got to talk to two Army soldiers and two active duty Marines.

“It really means a lot to give back,” Griffin said.

Eileen Schwartz, the organizer of the arts and crafts program and founder of Flags Across The Nation, said the goal of the craft this year is for campers to experience giving back to the community. She said the campers really bonded with the military men and each other.

“It’s a really joyful and meaningful experience for our campers to interact with the active military men,” Schwartz said. “We were very touched by the sensitivity that the soldiers and marines have for the campers.”

But the bond isn’t just between campers and soldiers.

Sara Schuler has volunteered at Camp SOAR for the past four years. She said the camp played a big part in her decision to study special education at Appalachian State University. Seeing the joy on the campers’ faces when they play sports like soccer and basketball makes her week, she said.

Camp SOAR is a huge learning experience for the volunteers, Bowler said.

He said a lot of people don’t understand the problems that intellectually and developmentally disabled people have with communication, but the camp is “breaking down these misperceptions.”

Schuler said volunteers have to model the behavior of the campers when working with them.

Tomas Hilliard, a junior at Providence Day School who has committed to Stanford University to play soccer, volunteered at Camp SOAR with the Charlotte Soccer Academy.

He said seeing the faces of campers light up after scoring goals and other achievements has taught him not to take things for granted.

“It’s got me thinking of maybe doing something like this outside of the program,” Hilliard said.

Bowler said volunteers in many ways get more out of the program than the campers.

Camp SOAR keeps growing every year, because Bowler never wants to turn a single camper down.

“This population deserves their own camp,” Bowler said. “(SOAR) gives them a quality camp, not just a field day.”

Haggerty: 704-358-6180
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