Summer Camp Fund

Camp celebrates kids with autism

Austin Dunlap loves doing the same things most 10-year-old boys love to do this time of year: jumping into swimming pools, making crafts and riding horses.

But because 10-year-old Austin has autism, he needs a special place – a summer camp in Moncure with the structure he craves, counselors who understand what triggers his frustration, and friends who share his gifts and challenges.

So when his mom, Nikki Dunlap, learned about Camp Royall, a 133-acre summer camp for kids with autism about two hours northeast of Charlotte, she thought it might be a perfect fit. She’s a single mom, so she applied for a scholarship when Austin was 6.

He got in and had the time of his life.

He’ll go again, for his fifth time, at the end of July. During his six-day stay at the Chatham County camp, he’ll sit around a campfire, ride horses, swim in the pool and participate in a talent show.

“The people are friendly and nice,” Austin says. He and his mom, a home aide who works with children with disabilities, already picked out a new rolling suitcase and Mario Kart sheets to take to camp.

Nikki Dunlap says she misses Austin when he’s away, but daily emails keep them in touch.

“It’s amazing he can go to summer camp and focus just on fun things to do,” she says. “I’m thrilled to be with him all the time, and when he’s away, I miss him so much. I really enjoy him getting to have fun.”

Camp Royall is one of 14 camps that receive money from the Observer’s Summer Camp Fund. Thanks to the generosity of readers, as well as matching grants and corporate donations, more than 260 kids from low-income families will attend camps this summer.

The fund will pay for four children to attend Camp Royall, where tuition costs $1,700 for a six-day session. Camp Royall serves children and adults starting at age 4.

Many campers require constant one-on-one attention. Some are nonverbal. There is even a night shift to make sure campers’ needs are met overnight and to be sure no one wanders away from the cabins, which is a real worry for some families.

“To me, camp is one of the most neutrally beneficial places,” says Director Sara Gage. “Our families get this relief and this break. For campers, it’s a valuable experience – they’re the center of the universe for one week, and they’re able to celebrate who they are.”

And because most of the staffers are college and graduate students studying special education, psychology and speech pathology, it’s a great place to receive hands-on training, she says.

Gage says she sees parents arrive to drop off their children on Sunday looking stressed and exhausted, and return on Friday looking refreshed and energized. The weeklong respite is needed for many families – to rest, travel, focus on other children in the family or do home-improvement projects that may be impossible with an autistic child at home.

Camp Royall, which will serve about 350 children and adults this summer, offers campers most of the traditional summer-camp experiences, but with slight twists.

Instead of a zip line, campers soar on a “zap line” that allows them to sit on a suspended seat instead of hang on handlebars.

Many activity centers have large photo posters showing campers the steps involved in the activity, such as how to prepare for a boat trip or a ride on horseback. There are sign-up sheets so campers can clearly see when it will be their turn.

Having activities clearly explained and the day well structured is what helps relieve many campers’ stress and anxiety. Courtney Meyer, 19, also a Camp Royall scholarship recipient, listed “the structure” as her favorite thing about camp.

“You get up and you have breakfast and you do activities,” said Meyer, who will attend the camp for a the third time this summer. “Every night we have a special event like a campfire or something going on in the gymnasium.”

Her mom, Suzanne Meyer, says when the letter arrives announcing that Courtney has received a scholarship, “we scream and shout and hoot and holler. We are so fortunate we have had the opportunity.”

“The beautiful thing about Camp Royall is that there’s something for everybody,” Suzanne Meyer says. “They really encourage that spirit that the kids have. It’s really hard for the parent of an autistic child to say you have to conform to society’s (expectations). At camp, you are who you are, and that’s awesome.”