Bill Black and Jessica Montalvo know that their decision to send their 9-year-old-son, Gabriel, to Socialights Summer Camp was, without a doubt, the right one.
The special needs youngster who has the rare 18P- syndrome as well as autism, attends Clark Elementary School during the school year, where he studies in both an autism unit as well as classes with neurotypical children.
“We want to address his needs and still have him play and have fun like the other kids do when they’re at camp. We work hard to make sure he’s included with neurotypical children,” says Montalvo.
And so, summer vacations and spring breaks find Gaby at Socialights, with its professional speech and occupational therapists as well as special needs and neurotypical children.
Trained professionals and “the integrated nature of the camp of kids with a range of needs as well as typical peers,” was a major appeal for the couple, says Black, a professor in the College of Education at the University of South Florida.
But there were other important points in their decision to maintain Gaby’s learning and experiences when school was out of session. Among them: maintaining his routine and structure, ensuring that he is a part of the broader community and also, Black points out, “we need some time, too.”
Knowing that their son’s needs are taken care of and that he is in a safe environment where he is learning and gaining new experiences gives the couple a chance to take some needed time for themselves.
“And having professionals who understand how important it is to us to recognize Gaby’s milestones and who can tell us what his assets are and how they are helping him to build on them is extremely important,” says Montalvo.
So how do parents choose the best camp experience for their children?
There are several aspects to think about, notes Eric Keaton, vice president of Marketing and Communications for Clearwater’s YMCA of the Suncoast in an email.
• Your child’s interest. Does your child like sports or respond well to music? Find a camp in which his or her interests are highlighted.
• Variety. Some camps offer swimming in the morning and arts and crafts in the afternoon. Others offer music and horseback riding. Check the camp’s programs and see which ones your child will get the most out of.
• Day or half day? Some children do best with shorter times away from home, while older ones might enjoy a longer time away from Mom and Dad.
• Financial assistance. Check with the camp you’re interested in and see if it offers financial assistance. It never hurts to ask.
Among the special needs camps in the area are:
Dream Oaks Camp
16110 Dream Oaks Place, Bradenton
A day and resident camp for children ages 7 to 17 with serious illnesses as well as physical and developmental disabilities of the autism spectrum, Dream Oaks offers children a wealth of experiences including arts and crafts, boat rides, campfires, canoeing, dancing, horseback riding, nature programs and sports. Staffers are professionals or college students trained in social services, education or health fields. A registered nurse is on site at all times. Call the number above for costs and more information.
Camp Boggy Creek
30500 Brantley Branch Road, Eustis
(352) 483-4200 or (800) 462-6449
Serving children ages 7 to 16 and developed by the late actor Paul Newman and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Camp Boggy Creek is designed for children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses. It offers weeklong summer sessions for children as well as family retreat weekends. Activities include archery, arts and crafts, swimming, horseback riding, theater, singing, dancing, boating and fishing. There is no charge to the children or families who attend Boggy Creek. Families can apply online. Facilities include an 8,000-square-foot medical center with a full-time staff. For information, call the number above or check the website.
Camp COAST (Children on the Autism Spectrum Together),
1005 S. Highland Ave., Clearwater
Children ages 5 to 10 who are high-performing on the autism spectrum can spend days at camp in the classrooms, pool and other facilities at the Clearwater branch of the Y during its summer camp sessions. Activities offered include swimming, sailing, arts and crafts, sensory games, singing, dancing and field trips. The Y also hosts a “Y Mainstreaming Camp” designed for children who are mainstreamed through the school year, with campers assisted by a teen volunteer. For more information on costs and programs, contact Vickie Shire at (727) 461-9622.
1114 Central Ave. , St. Petersburg
Although Creative Clay is located in the heart of St. Petersburg, camp sessions are conducted a few miles away at the Clay Center of St. Petersburg, 400 23rd St. S., where there is more room for activities. As in the past five years, camp sessions will focus on a variety of countries, with this summer’s focus on Turkey, New Zealand, France and Cuba. Sessions are led by one teacher and two assistants for every 12 children and encompass a variety of artistic mediums, including fabric, paint and clay. Creative Clay camp serves children of mixed abilities as well as typically developing children, ages 6 through 12 (children must have completed kindergarten.). At the end of each session, children will have one piece of artwork displayed for a week at the Mahaffey Center in St. Petersburg. There are a limited number of scholarships available. For more information, call the number above or check the website.
Socialights Summer Camp
11146 Winthrop Market St., Riverview
Run by two speech therapists, an occupational therapist and a corporate executive who is the mother of a 9-year-old with autism, Socialights Summer Camp is designed as a place for children to not only learn, but to have fun while they do it. Holly Marino, one of the partners in the group, describes the camp as “a way for kids of all abilities to experience what all kids get to experience.” To that end, Socialights Summer Camp encourages children of all abilities as well as neurotypical children to attend camp sessions. The camp offers two-week Therapeutic Summer Camps, which focus on social skills, martial arts, art, dance, reading and handwriting while children explore different continents in the world. Sessions are led by experienced speech and occupational therapists. Intensive Therapeutic Reading Camps run for a week and are led by Orton Gillingham trained instructors. Highly individualized, sessions are limited to ensure low ratios of instructors to campers to maximize instruction time. A Functional Skills Camp, designed for campers 14-22, is run by occupational therapists and focuses on life skills such as hygiene, time management, pragmatics, social etiquette, money management, self-expression and dining etiquette. Socialights encourages siblings to attend camp together and siblings of registered campers will be admitted at a discounted rate. Call the number above or email [email protected] for more information.