When Bob Bowler, a Special Olympics coach, heard that some of his athletes wanted to go to summer camp, he jumped at the opportunity.
Bowler said the athletes he coaches have intellectual or developmental disabilities. He said many summer camps didn’t have the resources to accommodate them.
“A lot of them found out that camps wouldn’t accept them because of their disability,” Bowler said. “Or they went to a camp and the kids made fun of them.”
Many families who have a child with special needs cannot afford to send them to summer camp due to high medical expenses, Bowler said.
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Special Olympics doesn’t offer camps in the summer. So, in 2000, Bowler opened Camp SOAR (Special Olympics Athletic Retreat) at the Levine Jewish Community Center in Charlotte. That year, Bowler said they had about 50 campers and 40 volunteers.
Best of all, the camp was -- and still is -- free.
Bowler said he never turns anyone away. Sixteen years later, the camp has about 350 campers and 400 volunteers.
It’s grown so much that Bowler split the campers into two sessions by age: 12-26 and 27-72. This year, camp took place June 13-17. Older campers attended Monday, Tuesday and Friday, and younger campers attended Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
This year, the focus of Camp SOAR was fitness.
For the first two days of each session, campers played sports in the morning, such as aerobics, tennis and basketball. After lunch, campers swam or bowled, played bingo and did arts and crafts.
On Friday, both the younger and older campers came together for a day of sports, crafts, games, an award ceremony and the camp dance.
“Everything is positive, everything is uplifting,” Bowler said. “We encourage campers to participate, have fun. We’re trying to build their self-esteem, self-confidence, self-awareness and social skills.”
The camp is funded by donations from individuals and corporations. Donations help pay for use of the JCC facility, lunches, bowling trips, pizza and t-shirts for campers and volunteers.
Al Tinson, Camp SOAR media-relations coordinator, said they couldn’t do it without the JCC’s help. Stephanie Garner, sports director at the JCC, handles most of the coordination.
“It’s so rewarding,” Garner said. “It’s hard work, but it’s the best week of the year.”
Katie Degnan, 23, said she has been a camper at Camp SOAR for at least 10 years. She said she’s had a great experience, and her favorite activity is tennis.
Last summer, Degnan won the gold medal in singles tennis at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles.
Jacob Marcus, 13, a second-year camper, said he was excited to go bowling. His buddy, Ashlynn Stauffenberg, said Marcus loves telling jokes.
Each camper has a volunteer buddy, who accompanies them to each activity.
“(The volunteers are) tremendous,” Tinson said. “I tell them every year, we couldn’t do this camp without you guys.”
Each year, an outstanding volunteer award is given on the last day of camp. The award is given in honor of Vickie Bowler, Bob Bowler’s daughter, who died in 2012. This year’s recipient was William Guiler, 17, who has volunteered at Camp SOAR for the past five years.
“I’ve learned so much about life and myself and every year I look forward to (camp),” he said. “The people here are like family to me. And the campers, I love them; they love me.”
Tinson said the camp has inspired many volunteers to pursue careers in special education or physical and occupational therapy.
“We’ve watched some of these kids come in as freshmen or sophomores in high school and they just blossom,” he said. “They learn terrific leadership skills.”
Gracie Flanagan, the group leader coordinator, said she has been volunteering at Camp SOAR for 13 years. Her first year, she said her camper was epileptic and had three seizures throughout the week, one of which occurred in the pool.
“It absolutely scared me to my core,” she said, “but for some reason I came back the next year.”
Flanagan said she is now pursuing her masters degree in special education.
“It’s all because of camp,” she said. “I just keep coming back.”
Jane Little: 704-358-5336; @janelittle26