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Autistic kids enjoy Camp COAST
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Photo by ALEXANDRA CALDWELL
Campers and counselors in training enjoy swimming as part of Camp COAST, a camp for autistic kids, housed at the YMCA of the Suncoast Clearwater branch.
CLEARWATER – Kids and teens splash and play in the pool as they happily enjoy another day at camp.

The previous day they had gone sailing. Mondays they ride horses. Normal kid stuff. But for these 15 campers and their parents, this camp is special. Camp COAST is specifically for children ages 5 through 9 who are on the autism spectrum.

People with autism have a harder time with sensory stimulation and social skills than other people, said Valene Winters, behavior specialist with the camp. Often they have a hard time in large groups, don’t relate well to others, tend to keep to themselves, have a harder time communicating, and don’t always pick up on social cues, such as humor, she said. Also, things such as loud noise and bright light can bother them, and sometimes they need to be taken aside to have some quiet time to relax and regroup, she said, but everyone at camp knows these things and are prepared for it.

“One little girl, she was all wrapped up in her towel and said ‘I can’t get out!’ But two weeks ago, she would have just screamed,” Winters said. “So I said, ‘Oh, okay,” and we unwrapped her and put it around her neck, and she was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ So she’s using her words, which is a big, big change. Because sometimes, it’s like a baby, and they can’t describe what’s bothering them. They just react.”

Camp COAST, which stands for Children on the Autism Spectrum Together, operates out of the YMCA of the Suncoast Clearwater Branch. Each camper is paired up with a teenage counselor in training who will stay with them the entire time through camp. There are two professionally trained teachers who understand how to work with autistic children, and there is Winters, the behavior specialist. A lot is like a regular camp – horseback riding every Monday thanks to the Kiwanis Club, swimming on Tuesdays and Fridays, a field trip on Thursdays, stories and songs. But there are also sensory games and other activities specifically designed for children on the autism spectrum.

“We make a point of having that eye contact with us,” Winters said, “so they can learn those social cues because they miss it by our eyes. I do joke with them a lot because that’s one of the things they miss, is social cues and humor, so then they kind of look at my eyes and realize, oh, she’s having fun. So they learn those skills.”

Arlene DeMull of Largo has an 8-year-old son, Zain, who has attended the camp for the past three years. Zain is in an ESE program at Bauder Elementary in Seminole, and Arlene said it is important to her that this program exists, as she does not know of anything else of its kind in the area.

“What this means to me is Zain has a safe place to go for the summer,” Arlene said. “He does not fall behind in any of his stuff that he learns in school, he has a great time, he looks forward to camp. This is his space and wants me out of there.”

For Zain he talks about the other kids and wanting to be a part of the kids, but then he plays by himself, Arlene said. The counselors help engage him, she said, which helps. Like many autistic kids, Arlene said Zain has certain OCDs, such as he has to always know the various exits from a room or a building so he can feel sure that he won’t get trapped. He also is particular about being on schedule and is quick to let people know if the schedule is off, she said.

Vickie Shire, program director at the YMCA of the Suncoast Clearwater branch, said she loves to watch the kids grow, form friendships and learn how to interact with each other and use their words.

“Zain loves horseback riding,” Shire said. “When we go horseback riding, I’ll say, ‘Zain, how’s the cowboy doing?’ And he’ll imitate a cowboy. “... And when they were sailing (recently) it was the best time for them. None of them tantrumed, none of them had any sensory issues, nothing. It was just a very relaxing day for them, and they wouldn’t get to experience that otherwise if they didn’t have Camp COAST.”

She said she is happy that they can provide such a needed service in Pinellas County. In its three years of existence, it has been able to expand to serve 15 campers, and now the YMCA also can provide YMAC, which is “Y” Mainstreaming at Camp. This camp, which is new this year, has about 45 campers, and five of those campers are for kids with autism.

“What’s great about that is it teaches our regular campers how to deal with people who may be a little different, and it teaches the diversity part of it because most kids just shy away from that,” Shire said. “But our campers have been great, treating them very nice. But then the other kids, too, their parents are happy because I know at other camps, they were told their child didn’t have a good time, they were told they were bad campers, but it’s not that they’re a bad camper, it’s just that sometimes that child needs to be redirected and worked with one-on-one.”

The kids on the autistic spectrum at YMAC also have a personal teen counselor in training, so together they are able to step aside and take some time to calm down if something becomes a problem. Some of these kids bounce back and forth, spending one week at Camp COAST and the next at YMAC as they work on making that transition.

Unfortunately, Shire said, much of the cost for Camp COAST is subsidized for the families, and the money is raised a year in advance. However, the economy has caused donations to be down for next year. Shire said this year the cost is $120 per week for YMCA of the Suncoast members and $150 for nonmembers, and therefore the only reason the camp can operate is through community donations. Additionally, she would ideally like to expand the program next year to include another camp for older kids so that kids don’t age-out when they turn 10.

“What people don’t realize is that $5, $10, or even $2, we can make it go a long way for these kids, because we care about them and love them to death,” Shire said.

People can help even without giving cash donations, she said. People can help advocate for the camp, ask for donations, donate a field trip for next year or goods or supplies, volunteer time, become part of the board, come up with fundraiser ideas, or anything else people can think of, she said. There are no administration costs, so the money goes directly into the program.

Julio Vega, executive director of the YMCA of the Suncoast Clearwater Branch said that he is proud to have such a program in his facility and that he will push to keep it going and to expand it as long as he has anything to do with it.

“(Going forward) for the YMCA, I think we’d like to see this where we’re offering this at every Y where we can provide this type of service,” Vega said. “Not every YMCA will be able to do so because it’s so specialized. We’d like to see people support the program financially. But for us, we’re going to have the space dedicated to it, we’re going to provide the services, and we’re going to continue doing it as long as I’m here at this Y.”

For more information or to make a donation, call Shire at 461-9622, ext. 27.
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