It with great pleasure that I write about one of the best projects I’ve ever worked on. Dragonfly Forest is a camp in the Philadelphia area that serves kids with serious illnesses and disorders. Two years ago, they decided to run a session for kids with autism, and I had the privilege of designing the program.
First, let me say that the camp is FREE for parents/families. Each session is about a week long, and it’s an overnight camp.
Part of the reason I was so excited to work on this autism program is because I truly love summer camp. I’ve worked at lots of camps, usually with my friend and mentor Scott Arizala, and I believe that everyone grows at camp. Kids, counselors, directors, and parents…everyone make these inexplicable leaps in understanding that most people do not understand. Camp is corny, it’s passionate, and it’s magical, and I highly recommend it for kids of all ages.
My other passion lies in the autism field, and connecting these two interests was and is thrilling for me. I decided to design the program to be very similar to other camp sessions, but with extra structure (& explanatory visuals), additional activity choices, and some extra staff.
I did not want to leave out any opportunities for fun, so we included the ropes course, campfires, canoeing, archery…the whole enchilada. Coming from a camp background, I felt very strongly that our camp was NOT supposed to be ‘therapy’, we were NOT going to shove any lessons down anyone throat. Instead, we were going to teach stuff the good way-by cramming as much freaking fun as possible into each day, and working to appreciate people for who they are, without trying to change them.
I was really nervous the night before the kids came…what if I forgot something? What if I was wrong and I accidentally over-estimated what the kids could do? What if someone gets hurt, or runs away (we had several runners signed up)? Did I sleep that night? Maybe an hour or two, tops.
Over the next few days, I was relieved to see that I had not underestimated anyone, my wonderful staff performed beautifully, and compassionately, and the kids loved camp. Let me be clear: autism camp is definitely not melt-down free (that would be ridiculous), instead it is a place where having a meltdown one minute doesn’t keep you from having fun the next minute. We accept meltdowns, and we move on. And the crazy thing is, that’s just one tiny slice of the magic that is camp.
Mike Belleme is the photographer who shot these great photos.