Alita Coleman enjoys a good social life.
She’s the youngest child in a big family and loves being around people. Like many teenagers, she wants her schedule to be filled with friends and fun.
Finding summer activities for her has been a challenge for her family in the past. But this year, they discovered Camp Trusted Parents, where children with disabilities spend their days playing, learning and being themselves.
They create art projects, go on neighborhood walks and tackle board games. They run around a track, play basketball in a gym and go on field trips. All the while, they’re working on social, physical and occupational skills so they don’t lose ground over summer break.
Alita, who has Down syndrome, looks forward to camp each morning. She dresses in her favorite clothes and gets excited to see her many friends at the camp, which is held on the Queens University campus in Charlotte.
Her mother, Addie Ivey, is grateful for The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund scholarship that allows Alita to attend camp. Ivey, a custodian at Independence High School, says without the scholarship her family couldn’t afford camp.
“It was a blessing – for them to sponsor my daughter like that. That really touched me and shone a new light in my heart,” Ivey said. “I didn’t think people cared like that.”
Alita is one of two children with Down syndrome attending the Trusted Parents Camp thanks to donations from readers and the community. All told, nearly 550 kids are attending 19 camps this summer on scholarships from the fund.
This is the last week of the annual campaign. Honorary fundraising chairman and NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick has urged people to donate what they can to give more kids a summer camp experience.
The camp fund’s intent is to connect kids to nature, teach water safety in pools and lakes, and keep them reading and learning during the summer. Opportunities range from a week in the mountains to entire summers spent at local day camps.
Nikia Bye started Camp Trusted Parents last year because of her own experience as the mother of a child with autism. Like many parents she found that when school ended in summer, children regress without therapy, structure and a learning plan.
She runs the tiny camp for up to 20 children whose disabilities span from autism to Down syndrome to muscular dystrophy. A few siblings without disabilities also attend.
Her staff includes a special education teacher and college students training in the field. Therapists come three times a week to work with the kids.
One morning last week, art therapist Samantha Stevenson had them engaged in an origami project.
“We’re working on fine motor skills and patience,” Stevenson said. “We’re doing so much more than just one thing and it’s fun. They don’t realize they’re doing all the hard work.”
At lunchtime, the children line up among college students, professors, athletes and kids from other camps to eat at the university’s cafeteria. Bye is the on-site mother: “Don’t talk with food in your mouth … no you can’t have a soda,” as she oversees the meal.
She says it’s important to set standards and help the children meet them so it’s easier for them to integrate into a society that doesn’t always understand them. “I don’t give into the disability,” she said. “I expect them to act in a certain way.”
At the same time, she’s quick with a hug and a smile.
“I’m so full with blessings,” Bye said. “Some people go through their whole lives not knowing what their purpose is. I know this is my calling. I just love these kids.”
Alita loves her camp director.
When she struggles to make her words understandable Alita, 15, sometimes gets frustrated. A hug from Bye inspires her to try again. Alita wants people to know that she likes camp almost as much as she likes the singer Chris Brown.
Nobody knows why, but a few years ago Alita developed a fixation on Brown, and you could be talking to her about what she ate for lunch, her friends at school or her family and the conversation usually gets back to him.
Ivey, her mother, says camp allows Alita to be herself: a gentle, generous girl who can also be stubborn when it comes to getting her own way, and a crackup when she sees humor in a situation and knows she’ll get a good laugh.
If she sees somebody in a wheelchair or with a more severe disability, her compassion shines: “She will help people with whatever anybody needs help with,” Ivey said. “She’s one in a million. You just don’t see a character like her every day.”
Alita will attend Independence High when school starts next month.
“Camp has been a godsend,” Ivey said. “When school stops and I don’t have something for her to do, she walks around like a lost puppy because she loves to socialize.”
To give to Summer Camp Fund
Donate at charlotteobserver.com/summercampfund. Or send donations to The Summer Camp Fund, P.O. Box 37269, Charlotte, NC 28237-7269. If you have questions about your donation: 704-358-5520.