Autistic kids learn to adapt, grow at this summer camp in the NC mountains

Summer camp is all about breaking routine. But for people on the autistic spectrum, breaking routine can throw them for a loop.

Enter Camp Lakey Gap in Black Mountain, which specializes in making sure kids can manage the challenge of change and enjoy the fun, life-changing camp experiences that all children deserve.

For 13-year-old Mykayla Brown of Charlotte, a week at Camp Lakey Gap last summer – her first time away from home – led to a breakthrough.

“She conquered her fears by jumping in the pool,” her mom, Yolanda Brown, said. “She eventually conquered the deep end. She jumped in over and over again.”

Yolanda conquered her fears, too. “Camp Lakey Gap heard from me several times before (Mykayla) entered camp,” she said. “They were so kind and compassionate. I was assured that everything would be all right.”

For 13-year-old Mykayla Brown of Charlotte, a week at Camp Lakey Gap last summer – her first time away from home – led to a breakthrough. “She conquered her fears by jumping in the pool,” her mom, Yolanda Brown, said. “She eventually conquered the deep end. She jumped in over and over again.” Courtesy of Yolanda Brown.

This year, The Observer grant is sending three children to Lakey Gap, just east of Asheville. This summer, more than 500 kids will attend 33 camps thanks to donations from Observer readers and the community. This year’s goal is to raise $215,000 to send hundreds more to camp next summer.

[Click here to donate to the Observer’s Summer Camp Fund]

‘These children have a purpose’

Not everyone with autism is able to speak. Chelley Philippe, a Mallard Creek High School student, can’t tell her mom, Marie, when she’s hungry, what she wants for dinner or when she’s in pain.

“I do everything for my child,” Marie said. “That includes changing her pull-ups. It’s a never-ending cycle. When she’s up at night, I’m up. And she’s never asleep for more than three to five hours at a time.”

Marie is “an open book” about Chelley because “too many stories focus just on high-functioning autism, and people need to know” about children who struggle to become self-sufficient.

“These children have a purpose,” she said. “They are part of our community. Chelley makes me laugh and smile every day. My child is a beautiful child.”

Camp is good for Chelley Philippe, but it’s also a desperately needed break for her mother,Marie. It’s the one week all year she can sleep through the night. Courtesy of Lakey Gap

Autism has become so prevalent that Jon Blalock, Camp Lakey Gap’s director, calls it “a societal issue.” He said, “In 2008, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reported that one in 88 8-year-olds is on the autism spectrum. That means that in 2018 – next year – one in 88 18-year-olds will be living with autism. They won’t be children any longer, and they’ll need jobs and support.”

Everything costs more

Everything – including camp – is more expensive for families of a special needs child. The average cost of a sleepover camp, according to Blalock, is $690 a week. But because Lakey Gap, and other camps like it, have a one-to-one camper-to-counselor ratio (or close to it), the average cost could be $1,000 or more per week.

Marie Philippe works two jobs and cares for her 93-year-old father, a special needs daughter and helps care for her grandchild. Chelley is on a special diet, and her meals can cost $300 a week. “I used to be able to contribute something toward my daughter’s camp tuition,” she said. “But it’s become too hard. If not for The Observer’s scholarship, she wouldn’t get to go to camp.”

“I don’t want Chelley to suffer because of extenuating circumstances,” she said.

Camp is good for Chelley, but it’s also a desperately needed break for Marie. It’s the one week all year she can sleep through the night.

And she sleeps well, knowing Chelley’s in good hands. “Here, we’re always pushing her to do more,” Marie said. “But when she goes to Lakey Gap, she can just have fun.”

Like Chelley, Mykayla Brown will return to Lakey Gap this summer – less apprehensive than she was last year.

“Mykayla returned from camp last summer with a new level of confidence,” her mom said. “She had to communicate directly with her counselor and look her in the eye. She used to be shy about ordering in a restaurant. But after camp, she could walk right up to the counter and order for herself.”

It’s become practically routine.

To give to the Summer Camp Fund

Donate at charlotteobserver.com/summercampfund. Or send donations to The Summer Camp Fund, P.O. Box 37269, Charlotte, NC 28237-7269.

Each Sunday during the drive, the Observer will list contributors to the fund. If you wish to make an anonymous donation, indicate it on the “for” line of your check or on PayPal, note your preference in the special instructions field. To donate in honor or in memory of someone, use the “for” line or special instructions field. Donations are tax-deductible and are processed through Observer Charities, a 501(c)(3).

If you have questions about your donation: 704-358-5520.

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