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Finding the kids behind the behaviors

Albany Democrat-Herald - 8/27/2017

Seventeen-year-old Jess Day has cerebral palsy. He doesn't speak and he's confined to a wheelchair. He can't see out of one eye, so as a joke he covers the good eye to suggest he's hiding.

His mother, Shelley Day, knows her son, and so understands the joke, as do all the other campers at Camp Attitude, an eight-week summer retreat east of Sweet Home that provides a sanctuary for kids with special needs, as well as their families. There are 19 such families at the camp this year, and campers like them have been coming here since 2000. Ron Heagy, an artist who became quadriplegic after a surfing accident in 1999, founded the camp.

Day, now the camp director, was one of the original campers. Her son Jess sits in his wheelchair near the the stage where the sound system is playing bouncy, upbeat music. Jess dances in his chair, and a camp counselor, a high school age volunteer, comes over and dances with him. She holds his hands and sways, laughing with him.

"He's always where the music is," says Day.

Watching the young girl taking the time to dance with her son, she refers to it as a "God Moment." In fact, she and most other campers talk about these God Moments, which are instances where something purely happy or even inexplicable happens. For example, many of the camp volunteers, like the young girl dancing with her son, pay for the opportunity to volunteer, spending most of their summer with kids like Jess Day.

"It's really counter-intuitive for a 16-year-old to do that, so that's like a God Moment," she said.

The campers at camp Attitude enjoy fishing, games, laser tag, smores, boat trips and horse rides, each of them spending their days with a camp buddy, or a person without special needs who can help them through their day. And no matter the special need, the staff will find a way to let them experience the fun of camp.

"If they want to try it out, we make it work," said Day.

Day said one of the best parts of the Camp Attitude experience is that it shows the kids that they are not alone, and also that it lets the parents spend time with other parents facing similar challenges. Camp Behavioral Therapist Katie Wade says a lot of the parents come to the camp having been conditioned to act a certain way around their child.

"You'll just get parents apologizing for their kids' behavior," she said. "But here they don't have to. Here, they're rock stars. So maybe if they drool or are still in diapers at a late age, it doesn't matter."

Wade explained how many families and kids with special needs face a harsh and even cruel world outside the camp.

"A lot of times, people can be mean, or sometimes they just don't understand, and it can be really hard for the kids and their families."

Wade said some of her favorite moments are the ones where she gets to see parents watching their kids and seeing them for who they really are.

"It's those God Moments," she said. "Here we see the kids behind the behaviors."

One such parent, Mike Eck, started as a camper and now he runs the camp kitchen with his four special needs children, most of them adopted. They all work as his sous chefs, preparing breakfast, lunch, dinner, and an evening snack each day. As they all work hard prepping for dinner, Eck explains how each year when they come out to the camp, all his kids get such big smiles on their faces as they pull into the driveway.

"They know that they are so loved here," he said.

 
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