At first glance, David Shin and Lee Scott might not seem to have much in common.
Shin, 19, of Raleigh, is an outgoing psychology major at UNC Chapel Hill.
Scott, a 16-year-old from Concord, has social challenges due to autism. Finding the right words can be tricky sometimes for the junior at Central Cabarrus High School.
But it took just minutes for the two to forge a tight friendship at summer camp last July through a shared love — “Star Wars.” Lee, a camper and Shin, a counselor, were paired up at Camp Royall, a residential camp near Pittsboro operated by the Autism Society of North Carolina. The camp is designed for campers of all ages who have autism.
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“If you summed up how much we talked about “Star Wars,” it would be in days, not hours,” Shin said, laughing. At mealtimes, “I’d say, ‘Lee, eat your food. We can talk about “Star Wars” later.’ ”
Lee attended Camp Royall last year on a scholarship from the Summer Camp Fund, an effort by The Charlotte Observer to provide day and overnight camp experiences to underprivileged youth in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.
Thanks to the generosity of readers, grants and corporate sponsors, 208 children who otherwise wouldn’t get the opportunity to attend summer camp will head off to 12 camps this summer. Since 2009, nearly 600 children have benefitted from the program.
Last year was Lee’s second summer at the camp. As luck would have it, he was paired with Shin.
Camp director Sara Gage says she didn’t realize both teens shared an encyclopedic knowledge of “Star Wars.” But she had a feeling the two would hit it off, mainly because Shin has a talent for connecting with teenagers who have what’s described as “high functioning” autism.
And connect, they did.
For the camp-wide talent show in front of parents on the camp’s last day, Lee and Shin decided to perform an epic battle from “Star Wars” set to music from the movie’s soundtrack. Before the skit, Lee retreated to the camp’s art department and fashioned a Darth Vader mask out of paper plates.
The result was a performance that stole the show, Gage said. Shin agrees. “The crowd went wild. We had way too much fun doing that.”
Lee’s mom, Kimberly Scott, says her son starts asking about Camp Royall once the spring weather turns warm.
“He enjoys going there for a week just to have fun,” Scott said. “He really likes it and he gets to make new friends and he does a lot of hiking and swimming and arts and crafts. They swim three times a day and he just loves swimming.”
Kimberly Scott says she misses her son when he’s away at Camp Royall. But when she arrives to pick him up on the camp’s last day, she knows he’s had the time of his life. Staff present her and other parents with a folder detailing every activity their child completed, every meal they ate and other important milestones from the week.
This summer, about 350 campers will circulate through Camp Royall during the camp’s 10, one-week sessions.
Campers, some of whom require 1-on-1 care, do typical camp activities ranging from hiking and boating to hay rides and arts and crafts, Gage said. Swimming is a sensory friendly experience that a lot of campers enjoy, so it’s offered three times a day.
One of the favorite activities is a zap line – a modified zip line where campers use a stepstool to climb into a suspended seat rather than jumping off a platform.
Lee and Shin hit it off so well together last summer that Gage is pairing them up again for a week this June.
Shin is eager to rekindle the friendship — and maybe re-enact another “Star Wars” battle or branch out and perform a scene from another shared movie love, Indiana Jones.
“He definitely taught me what enthusiasm meant,” Shin said. “He was always smiling, always joking around, and I felt like a kid again.”