Special needs camp focuses on sports, arts and crafts
For the 11th year, special needs students in the area had a chance to “soar” last week.
Special Olympics North Carolina hosted its annual Camp SOAR, or Special Olympics Athletic Retreat, at the Sandra and Leon Levine Jewish Community Center.
The weeklong day camp, created specifically for individuals with special needs, saw more than 300 campers and nearly 400 volunteers from Union County, Charlotte, Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville, and other surrounding communities.
“It’s been a huge success,” media relations specialist Al Tinson said.
Camp SOAR reaches out to individuals in the community who have developmental or intellectual disabilities. Throughout the week, campers get to participate in a number of different sports, including basketball, bocce ball, tennis, soccer, volleyball, floor hockey and swimming. In addition to these physical activities, campers also receive a free lunch, participate in arts and crafts sessions, watch magic shows and enjoy a dance on their final day.
The camp was founded 11 years ago by Bob Bowler, who saw a need in the community for such an event. Realizing there were camps for things like rock-climbing, cheerleading and band, but no local camp for special needs kids during the summer, Bowler had a desire to reach out to these students. And through a partnership with Special Olympics, corporate sponsorship and private donations, Camp SOAR was born.
Stephanie Garner, director of sports and fitness for the Jewish Community Center, has worked with Camp SOAR each of the 11 years it has run.
“I love working with the population,” Garner said of the campers. “I don’t get a lot of opportunity in my normal job. I get this one week per year.”
When the camp started, it was a three-day program with 54 campers attending and 35 volunteers. Because the numbers attending are so high, officials have had to split the camp up by age. Individuals age 26 and older attend Monday and Tuesday, while those age 10 to 25 attend Wednesday and Thursday, with everyone coming back on Friday for the culmination of the week.
Each year, camp officials try to add or change something about the camp to keep it fresh and new. This year, Camp SOAR placed an emphasis on arts and crafts.
Volunteer Eileen Schwartz, who has a background in art and special education, coordinated these efforts.
Schwartz hosted three afternoon arts and crafts sessions Monday through Thursday and two morning sessions Friday. She worked with the campers and other volunteers to help develop art projects that were fun and doable in a 45-minute period.
This year’s crafts included decorating T-shirts and ball caps with fabric markers.
“My personal goal was to give the campers an opportunity to find that creative side of themselves,” Schwartz said.
In addition to making artwork, campers also had the opportunity to write personal messages on postcards to be sent to troops overseas. The postcards included a picture taken at last year’s event, and pictures were taken this year for 2012’s postcard.
But the entire event wouldn’t be possible without volunteers, Bowler said.
“I never like to turn a volunteer away, because it teaches them a lot,” he said. “It’s very rewarding because it is a life-changing experience. Some (volunteers) come back year after year, which shows that they enjoy it.”
Volunteer Brandon Shell, a Matthews resident and a student at Queens University, has worked with Camp SOAR for five years. During his time with the program, Shell has realized the impact Camp SOAR has on the campers and their role in society.
“A lot of campers may be in special education classes in their high schools or middle schools. They don’t feel like part of the community,” he said. “This gives them an opportunity to interact with a variety of people in our community.”
For Bowler, the main goal of Camp SOAR is to reach out to the campers and show them they are important and appreciated.
“It’s about accentuating abilities and not disabilities,” Bowler said. “We want to build self-esteem, self-awareness, and confidence of the campers to make them part of the community.”