Sevierville camp serves children with special needs

Helps establish routines; "It's amazing what you can do"
Jul. 31, 2013 @ 11:59 PM

As a new school year approaches, getting back into the groove can be challenging for children with special needs.

That's why, four years ago, Sevier County residents Lisa Roberts and Betty Bell launched Jump Start Special Needs Camp. The program, which is jointly sponsored by Sevier County Civitan and Special Friends Ministry of First Baptist Church in Sevierville, lets children with special needs benefit from structured activities and social activity prior to beginning a new school year. This year's camp, which runs July 29-Aug. 1, was held at First Baptist Church.

Both Roberts and Bell are parents of autistic children. Roberts said that although the Trula Lawson Early Education Center offers summer school programs for children through kindergarten, no such programs exist for school-aged special needs children in Sevier County.

"We just want to kick-start them into the new school year," Roberts said. "Most of the special needs kids don't play summer sports. They stay inside a lot, and their days are pretty much the same."

The camp is open for students from kindergarten through 12th grade, and many of the campers come back year after year. "One of the most fun things for me is watching them grow and seeing how they've changed over the year," Roberts said. "You don't really notice those things with your own kids, because you see them every day."

Roberts said that she doesn't see working with special needs children as a challenge; she simply sees each idiosyncrasy as part of who they are. "I look at as, it's amazing what you can do," she said.

While at the camp, the children make crafts, play games, and enjoy music and singing. "While doing these things, they're socializing and improving their fine motor skills, but we disguise it as fun," Roberts said.

The children enjoyed several special events, such as a dog show from the Comedy Barn, a presentation from the fire department and a bird show.

This year, 19 special needs children attended the camp, in a range of ages. In addition, several other local children served as peer models to the students. "We like to mix them up," Roberts said. "It helps the students be more tolerant and gives them a role model to imitate."

The camp acclimated the children to learning new routines. "It's about the little things," Roberts said. "It doesn't take much to make me excited. One parent couldn't believe her child tried fish sticks this week, because she'd never tried them before."

Throughout the week, the kids had fun, but they also learned. "We've talked about the seasons, so if they learning something new or develop a new social skill, that's great," Roberts said. "Today we made snow globes and talked about winter. The kids loved playing with the glitter."

The children who attend the camp have a variety of developmental issues, from autism to Down syndrome. While they come from county schools, private schools, and even other counties, Roberts said their summers are often the same.

"We enjoy them," she said. "They come in here squealing like it's the most fun they've had all summer, and for many of them, it is."