Autism-focused summer program in Pittsboro makes happy campers

Camp Royall works to meet participants’ special needs through schedule, setup

07/21/2012 12:00 AM

07/21/2012 11:44 PM

Thirteen-year-old Kate Jarvis doesn’t like to look people in the eye.

And she’s accustomed to being the target of middle-school bullies.

But at Camp Royall, she is adventurous, sociable and sometimes even a leader.

Jarvis, who has Asperger’s syndrome, has changed after just three weeks at Camp Royall over the course of four years.

“This opened up a whole world for her,” said her mother, Sharon.

The residential camp on 132 acres near Pittsboro, about 140 miles northeast of Charlotte, caters to people of all ages across the autism spectrum.

The youngest campers are 4 years old. The oldest camper of late was 67.

This year, The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund awarded Camp Royall $3,200 for two full scholarships for children from low-income households. Kate received one of those scholarships this year.

One-third of the campers come from families living on less than $10,000 a year, said camp director Sara Gage, who started as a counselor 16 years ago.

The program started in the early 1970s, when a group of parents and children camped in a backyard for a week. The Autism Society of North Carolina built Royall’s current facility about 15 years ago, and it now serves about 350 campers over 10 weeks each summer.

Camp Royall houses the nation’s oldest and largest summer camp program for people on the autism spectrum, while also providing services throughout the year.

The camp also hosts family days and retreats for high-functioning adults with autism.

“It’s kind of like their vacation weekend,” said Gage.

Every summer, Camp Royall couples the traditional camp experience with individualized care.

The site has country roads, a lake, a swimming pool, a crafts building, a gym and hay rides. But unlike most camps, Camp Royall boasts a one-to-one or two-to-one camper-to-counselor ratio.

People with autism crave visual cues as well as structure – a schedule, familiar surroundings, clear-cut rules.

So every day of camp follows the same routine, Gage said. To explain the next activity, counselors often give campers illustrated guides.

In the application process, parents and guardians include detailed information about campers’ medical histories and special needs.

If certain campers, such as Kate, require gluten-free or dairy-free food, their meals are planned.

Many people with autism have trouble sleeping through the night, so some get a private room. A counselor even sleeps on a mattress in the hallway to ensure that campers in the private rooms don’t leave at night.

One of Camp Royall’s traditions is a weekly talent show. As parents come to the site on Friday afternoons to pick up their campers, they get to see the group show off.

Some campers sing, while others display their artwork or tell jokes. One camper even showed the spectators how he could ride his scooter, Gage said.

Kate Jarvis once demonstrated her face-painting skills on her counselor.

Sharon remembers that at the most recent talent show one young boy stood up and discussed the Titanic.

“He knew every fact and detail,” she said. “So many kids with disabilities are bullied throughout their childhood. This is a sort of safe haven and a place where, even just for five minutes a day, they can show off their talent.

“Even if it’s only for one week out of their whole year ... one week out of their whole life, it really makes a difference.”

Though Kate is in a mainstream schooling program, making friends is a challenge for her, Sharon said.

But in a two-on-one situation with just one counselor and one other camper, Kate is able to make friends, and even offer help with activities she did in past summers.

For people with autism, trying new experiences is difficult.

But after a few days, Sharon saw photos on the camp’s website of Kate swimming, boating, horseback riding and doing the “zap line” (a less formidable version of a zip line). After camp was over, Kate connected with her new friends on Facebook.

“I knew I wouldn’t have to worry,” said Sharon. “Just to give her a week of laughing and giggling and acting like an (eighth-grader) is something she’ll remember for the rest of her life.”

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