Summer is a time of camps, excitement, and engagement with other kids. It is difficult for some who are diagnosed autistic. Camp Connect has brought summer back to the children with this diagnosis and have enjoyed every moment of it.
Mary Garlington became director of Camp Connect in 2007 and has remained in this position every year.
Garlington, director of Camp Connect wears many hats in the community and loves every minute of it.
"I am an occupational therapist and a RDI Certified Consultant at Pediatrics Plus," said Garlington, "I supervise the ASD classroom at Pediatrics Plus Developmental Preschool in Conway, provide OT services to the children within that classroom, and lastly, I do private consultation sessions for families who have a child with an ASD diagnosis."
"Camp Connect is designed for children with a "high-functioning" or mild Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis. The focus of Camp Connect is provide an opportunity for children on the autism spectrum to collaborate and think dynamically with peers in real world social situations," said Garlington.
It takes about six months to plan the one-week camp. Beginning in January, Garlington and Rose Davidson, assistant director at Camp Connect bring in soon-to-graduate Occupational Therapist students to work on the camp as part of their clinical.
The camp has gone through a wonderful history of growth. Starting with only 6 students, it began as a way to get kids together in order "to create real world social situations and to facilitate dynamic thinking," said Garlington.
Through some trial and error the perfect age group from nine to thirteen was finally decided. Garlington worked with younger students beginning at age five then older students up to age seventeen, but found the perfect age was from nine to thirteen.
"It wasn’t that the younger kiddos were too difficult, it was just they got fatigued. We ended up having to send them home at half days," said Garlinton.
The camp boasts an outing every day in the week long camp. Kids can enjoy bowling, a trip to Fifth Avenue Park for water fun, Back Acres Ranch for live animal interaction, and a hiking trip to Petit Jean. Friday is a special event day for the group. Under the supervision of the camp volunteers, kids prepare a Mexican feast that will feed the whole group and their parents prior to an awards ceremony.
During each field trip there is are activities and themes. Kids have the opportunity to make two-liter bottle rockets, photo holders and other craft and science projects. Some themes this week were space, the beach, and movie-making day. "It’s a really fun week," said Rose Davidson, assistant director at Camp Connect.
Beyond the fun times of the week, safety is of utmost importance to the volunteers, directors, and of course parents.
"We have about a two to one ration of kiddo to volunteer. Each group leader is assigned four kids and one volunteer," said Garlington.
Additionally, the camp rents church vans so that the group is always together and there is a consistent person with them at all times.
The camp is paramount in bringing kids together. Often, this is the "first time being away [from their parents] even for a few hours," said Davidson.
Eleven year-old Jenna Belle Moore explained, "It’s amazing." Jenna Bella has been a camper for six consecutive years. "My favorite thing is hanging out with all my friends," said Jenna Belle.