South Charlotte

These special students enjoy a very special trip

On a recent Monday morning, Bianca Carbajal arrived with her father at her class at Independence High School with a packed suitcase.

Teacher Joy Whitlock gave the girl's father a puzzled look.

"We don't leave until Wednesday," Whitlock said.

"I know," he replied. "She just wanted to bring her stuff today."

Bianca is one of the students in Independence High School's specialized academic curriculum classes who spends months, even the whole year, looking forward to the annual class trip to Camp Thunderbird. This year's outing marked the six-year anniversary of the trip.

SAC classes are for students with intellectual disabilities and multiple disabilities, such as cerebral palsy. The SAC goal is to teach students to be as independent as possible.

The trip costs about $100 per student to stay at Camp Thunderbird, plus incidentals such as transportation to the camp at Lake Wylie. Students who go are able to take care of their personal routines and be mobile, though some have limited speech or don't talk much at all.

The Independence High teacher who founded the trip left the school after its first year, and Whitlock said a school leader suggested she approach community groups about paying for subsequent outings.

Soon afterward, Whitlock made a presentation to the Lions Club.

"They funded the whole thing the first year," Whitlock said. The Lions Club since has shared funding with grants from the YMCA.

"They really care about these kids, and they care about the opportunity," said Casey Kohl, another Independence SAC teacher who goes on the trip.

Some of the campers have never spent a night away from their parents.

"The first year, we thought it would be fun," Kohl said. "It was life-changing."

This year, about 25 students, including some special-needs students from Northeast Middle School, kicked off their stay at Camp Thunderbird with a dance party.

Whitlock, Kohl, Independence English teacher Ben Barry, Independence assistant SAC teacher Frank Nunn and substitute Heather Boone chaperoned. Assistants Patricia Dowdell and Onie Houston helped during the day.

Camp Thunderbird students learn astronomy, try a zip line and climbing wall and play games. They eat in the cafeteria and sit around a campfire.

The mundane aspects of camp, however, can be just as much of an adventure: Unpacking a suitcase. Taking a shower. Laying out clothes for the next day.

The first year, teachers had to help many students by walking them through personal routines, Kohl said.

Some students now have been to camp for several years and have the routine down.

"This year they're doing everything themselves," said Kohl. "It's gives them a whole different skill set."

The behavior issues that might crop up in the classroom disappear at Camp Thunderbird, Kohl said. Students often have such a good time they forget to call their parents.

"We have never had to take a kid home, and we've never had a kid cry," he said. "Parents realize their kids can be independent."

The students list different aspects of camp as their favorite. Jeremiah Livingston chose the climbing wall. Talaya Mackey liked fishing. Heather Steele and Kevin Sumski enjoyed dancing.

Some students blossom at Camp Thunderbird, becoming better friends and bonding with camp counselors who work with them.

"The counselors are just amazing," Whitlock said. "Our kids are grateful and affectionate and excited, and they just love working with them."

While the trip can be hard work for teachers, they say, it's worth it because of the growing experience it can be for students.

Many kids say it's the highlight of their year.

"They love it and have a good time together," Whitlock said.

One student, Whitlock said, came on the trip soon after a serious fire at her family's home.

"She had an absolute ball," Whitlock said. "She couldn't stop smiling the whole time."

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