Summer camp offers traditional experiences for special-needs kids

snagem@newsobserver.comJuly 8, 2013 

— Camp is a big part of summer for some kids – a time to swim, play games and meet new friends.

For kids with special needs, though, traditional summer camp isn’t always an option. But at Camp G.R.A.C.E., children with autism ride horses, visit with therapy dogs, swim in the pool, do yoga and make art.

The Kraft Family YMCA has hosted the day camp every summer since 2008. Some campers are high functioning; others don’t speak at all.

The idea behind Camp G.R.A.C.E. is to offer these youngsters what other camps can’t.

“We try to give our campers as close to a typical camp experience as we can,” said Camp Director David Murray. “It’s something they might not get at a traditional camp, where they may be sidelined because the right accommodations haven’t been made.”

It’s all about letting kids do things at their own pace and celebrating small successes, said Sarah Griffin, 20, the head counselor for Camp G.R.A.CE. at the Kraft Y.

The parents of one teen camper were skeptical their son would ride a horse, Griffin said.

The first week, he petted the animal. By the second week, he was riding.

“We’ve created some great relationships with our kids,” Griffin said.

Helping young people with special needs is personal for Griffin. She’s a rising junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she’s studying psychology and linguistics and speech and hearing sciences. And her teen sister has autism.

“There’s not a lot out there for her population. … It’s a lot of sitting at home watching TV,” Griffin said.

But social situations can help those on the autism spectrum learn and grow, she said.

“They should have the same opportunities as everyone else to have fun experiences,” Griffin said.

Camp G.R.A.C.E. grew out of a student’s class project at Meredith College. Now it’s offered at the A.E. Finley YMCA in North Raleigh and the Kraft Family YMCA through a partnership with the nonprofit A Small Miracle.

Six staff members from the Kraft Y received training from A Small Miracle to work with campers, said Y spokeswoman Susan Knowles.

The program costs $800 per camper, but families aren’t asked to pay more than $400, Knowles said. Some families qualify for additional aid.

The money is covered by the Y’s annual We Build People campaign. Knowles said the campaign is based on the philosophy that no one should be left out of programs because they can’t pay.

So each summer, dozens of kids attend Camp G.R.A.C.E., which stands for Growth, Recognition, Achievement, Character and Encouragement.

Griffin said she sees campers make strides. One camper never used to speak, she said. But recently, Griffin tried to convince her to eat a sandwich.

The girl definitely had something to say about that: “Yuck.”

Nagem: 919-460-2605 or

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