Every summer, the Observer’s summer camp series demonstrates how camp can change a child’s life. It can do the same for a counselor.
James Dees began volunteering with Camp Trusted Parents from the beginning. (Founder Nikia Bye couldn’t find a day camp for her teenage son who has autism. So, she created one.)
Dees, 21, was then a student at Cox Mill High School in Concord who was planning to study criminal justice in college. But, he said, “That first year, I had my eyes opened up. These kids have my heart.”
He worked with kids with autism, Down Syndrome, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, ADHD and more. He was inspired by how happy these kids are – in spite of the challenges they face. “As counselors, we’re supposed to greet them every day with a happy face,” he said. “They make it easy. They’re always smiling.”
He changed his major at Mars Hill University to special education with a minor in psychology.
This summer marks the fifth one that Camp Trusted Parents, held on Queens University of Charlotte’s campus, has welcomed campers – from rising second graders to 21-year-olds – with intellectual or developmental disabilities. All campers must be enrolled in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Thanks to the Charlotte Observer Summer Camp Fund, 11 campers will attend Camp Trusted Parents this summer. Those kids are among more than 500 heading to 33 camps because readers donated to the camp fund.
Although Bye doesn’t advertise, demand for her camp keeps increasing. She’s extended it from seven to eight weeks this year. Kids can come for one week – or the whole summer. She even offers before- and after-camp care for parents whose work schedules don’t allow them to drop off by 9 a.m. and pick up at 4 p.m.
Campers participate in arts and crafts, games and sports, science projects, computer classes, field trips – and (although they think of this as play), occupational, physical and – new this year – music therapy.
But a child doesn’t have to have a disability to attend. Many parents who have one child with a disability will send that child and a sibling to camp together.
Bye said one mother sent her young sons – neither of whom is a special-needs child – to Trusted Parents last summer. The mom wanted her sons to see and celebrate differences.
“At first, those boys weren’t entirely supportive of kids with challenges,” Bye said. “But by the end of the summer, one of the brothers had become best friends with a boy with autism. Both brothers were helping other campers; they emerged as leaders. This was more than tolerance. Compassion started showing up.”
At the end of the summer, Bye asked the 7-year-old what he had learned that summer. “They’re kids just like we are,” he responded.
Their mom has enrolled them this summer. But there’s a big difference this year. She has a younger daughter who’s now being tested for autism. “Those little boys – her big brothers – are now prepared to understand the challenges she might have,” Bye said.
Dees saw those challenges first-hand – and the experience changed his career path. “Society tells these kids they can’t do a lot of things," he said. "We want to be the people who show them they can.”