Summer Camp Fund

A summer-long blessing for kids with special needs

Campers Brianna and Jacio Parker share a laugh at Camp Trusted Parents, a summer camp for children in Charlotte.
Campers Brianna and Jacio Parker share a laugh at Camp Trusted Parents, a summer camp for children in Charlotte. Courtesy of Camp Trusted Parents

When Nikia Bye couldn’t find a day camp appropriate for her teenage son who has autism, she started one herself.

This is the fourth summer that Camp Trusted Parents, held on the Queens University campus, has welcomed campers with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Thanks to the Charlotte Observer Summer Camp Fund, five children will attend Camp Trusted Parents for seven weeks this summer. They are among more than 500 heading to 33 camps because readers donated to the Observer’s Summer Camp Fund. The goal this year is to raise $215,000 to send hundreds more to camp next summer.

Bye – whom campers and parents alike call “Ms. Nikia” – doesn’t advertise. Word-of-mouth alone has resulted in a wait list to snag a spot at the day camp she runs for rising second graders through rising 12th graders with muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, ADHD, and more.

Nikia Bye
Nikia Bye

Campers enjoy arts and crafts, games and sports, science projects, computer classes, field trips – and are surrounded by support.

A child doesn’t have to have a disability to attend. Thanks to an Observer scholarship, Shakima Ruffin can send her two sons this summer, neither of whom has a disability.

Noah Fox, 10, and Joseph Fox, 7, “don’t even notice (a difference), which is what I love,” Ruffin said. “They are able to intermingle with kids who are a little different from them.”

Noah loves the activities – and buffet-style lunch. Joseph enjoys the games and computer lab. Both love the field trips.

Ruffin loves exposing her boys to a world of diversity: “Going to this camp teaches my boys that...not everyone is the same. It teaches them compassion and to accept all people no matter what struggles or differences they may have.”

Some campers don’t grasp that this is summer camp. They think it’s a local version of Disneyland that they get to attend every day.

Stephanie Patterson’s 13-year-old son, Jacio, asks throughout the school year, “Camp Summer? Ms. Nikia?”

Jacio has Down syndrome and is moderate to severe on the autism spectrum.

Stephanie Patterson Mug
Stephanie Patterson

Jacio is “particular about who he allows in his space,” Patterson said. He readily welcomed Bye and all the counselors into his orbit. So did Patterson, who says: “I think those counselors have magical skills God gave them.”

The counselors are also specially trained, and three days a week licensed occupational and physical therapists come to camp to provide therapy, which seems to campers just like play.

“It’s hard to trust someone with your child who’s nonverbal,” Patterson said. “I’ll test people before I’ll leave my son with them.” Camp Trusted Parents counselors aced the test, she said.

Patterson sends Jacio’s 10-year-old sister, Brianna, to the same camp even though she doesn’t have special needs. Brianna insisted.

“My daughter understands Jacio as I do,” Patterson said. “She’s very protective of him.”

Without the Summer Camp Fund, Patterson said: “My kids would not be in camp at all. Period.”

Parents praise what a special place “Ms. Nikia” has created. “It is such a comfort,” Patterson said. “I don’t look at this as a camp. It’s another family to me.”

To give to the Summer Camp Fund

Donate at Or send donations to The Summer Camp Fund, P.O. Box 37269, Charlotte, NC 28237-7269.

Each Sunday during the drive, the Observer will list contributors to the fund. If you wish to make an anonymous donation, indicate it on the “for” line of your check or on PayPal, note your preference in the special instructions field. To donate in honor or in memory of someone, use the “for” line or special instructions field. Donations are tax-deductible and are processed through Observer Charities, a 501(c)(3).

If you have questions about your donation: 704-358-5520.