Summer Camp Fund

Camp Royall: Where kids on the autism spectrum discover abilities they never knew they had

With help from a counselor, Jasmine Bizzell, 13, who is nonverbal, enjoys the pool at the Autism Society of North Caroilna’s Camp Royall.
With help from a counselor, Jasmine Bizzell, 13, who is nonverbal, enjoys the pool at the Autism Society of North Caroilna’s Camp Royall.

Each summer children as young as 4 attend a camp that allows them to do things they never dreamed possible.

For some, that may be riding a horse. For others – even teenagers – it’s using a toilet for the first time.

At the Autism Society of North Carolina’s Camp Royall campers surprise themselves and their parents. The camp, in Pittsboro, is named to honor the late N.C. Sen. Ken Royall of Durham.

Thanks to the Charlotte Observer Summer Camp Fund five children attended sleep-away sessions at Camp Royall this summer. They’re among more than 500 kids who went to 33 camps because readers donated to the Summer Camp Fund. The goal this year is to raise $215,00 to send hundreds more children to camp. So far, the fund totals $197,747 – about $18,000 shy of its goal. Readers can donate using the link below.

Jasmine Bizzell, 13, of Charlotte attended Camp Royall’s overnight camp in July on a full scholarship from the Observer’s fund. Her mom, Maricel Bizzell, was able to send both Jasmine and her twin sister, Jessica, to camp the same week. This was their sixth summer at Camp Royall.

While Jessica was diagnosed with mild to moderate autism when she was younger, Maricel describes her today as “a typical teenager.” At camp she doesn’t have any responsibilities for her sister – who is nonverbal – although if she sees Jasmine upset, she’ll try to soothe her.

Jasmine is very observant, her mom said. She watches her sister and strives to emulate her. “If Jessica is doing something, Jasmine wants to try it, too.”

Kristy White, chief development officer for the Autism Society of North Carolina, said Camp Royall is the nation’s oldest and largest summer camp for people with autism. Founded in 1972, it is sought after by parents and also by students and other adults from all over the world who want to be counselors. Many go on to work in special education, pediatrics and counseling.

The camp provides a long-awaited respite for parents. “One mom told us her son presents too big a physical challenge to take him out in public,” White said. “This week may be, aside from school, the one time all year parents get a break from being full-time caregivers.”

“It is heaven,” said Maricel Bizzell, a single mom. “And it’s a relief to know your kids are in good hands. I totally trust them.”

There’s a one-to-one staffer to camper ratio. “We interview parents extensively before camp,” White said. “We want to know all about their child’s likes and dislikes and how we can help that child be successful. We want to ensure as smooth a transition as we can.”

Parents get to tell camp officials in advance how their child likes his or her food prepared. But counselors also encourage campers to break out of their comfort zones.

Some try – and learn to enjoy – fruits and vegetables. Other kids sleep in their own bed for the first time.

One mom told counselors that her child had slept with her and her husband for 12 years. He went home from Camp Royall ready to sleep in his own bed.

Other parents pick up their child from Camp Royall only to discover they’ve slept through the night for the first time. Or, that they’ve made their first friend.

“Stories about friendships are among the biggest we hear,” White said. “If you’re in middle school and on the autism spectrum, you may be really challenged to find a sense of belonging. Here, kids like you just the way you are.”

To give to the Summer Camp Fund

The Summer Camp Fund has a $215,000 goal this year and is in its final week. Donate at charlotteobserver.com/summercampfund. 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.

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