Camp Encourage gives youth with ASDs overnight option

Contact: Kelly Lee (816) 729-7873 (816) 830-7171 Email:

Unique overnight camp for youth on autism spectrum seeks scholarship donations

“You never realize the impact you make on people’s lives,” said Eli Latendresse, 13, of Lee’s Summit, a peer model at Camp Encourage, a Kansas City area overnight camp for youth 8 to 18 years old with autism spectrum disorders, or ASDs. “Doing just the slightest things can make the biggest difference.”

People with ASDs share significant social, communication and behavioral challenges because their brains process information differently than other people’s. But being spectrum disorders, ASDs create a unique set of symptoms in each affected person, ranging from very mild to severe.

“There’s a lack of camps for kids on the spectrum, and we want to meet the needs of this important population,” said Kelly Lee, Camp Encourage co-founder. “We think everyone should have the chance to experience a successful summer camp.”

Eli and about 110 other campers will attend one of two 2013 sessions at Tall Oaks Conference Center in Linwood, Kan., just west of Kansas City, from June 25 to 28 or July 24 to 27. Campers have been chosen via a lottery system, volunteers and peer models have been recruited, and activities are planned. All that’s left is raising scholarship funds to help campers who can’t afford the $1,200 cost. Now through the end of July, tax-deductible donations for Camp Encourage given through will be matched, up to $15,000.

Many kids with ASD experience hypo- or hypersensitivities affecting one or more of their senses. Camp Encourage provides the unique support and volunteer training for their social, behavioral and sensory needs.

“Sometimes they don’t choose the decisions they make or they aren’t able to control some of the stuff they do, like noises or gestures,” Eli said. “They just happen, and people judge them for that.

“I’ve learned that you never judge somebody.”

A change of environment, especially without structure, also can cause anxiety and behavioral problems.

“Many of them suffer if they don’t have a lot of structure,” Kelly said. “Unfortunately, a lot of other camps aren’t that structurally organized; Camp Encourage provides that so they know what to expect.”

Camp Encourage fosters social growth, independence, and self-esteem, as well as connects campers with others who share the same challenges.

“Most of the kids there would never get to talk to friends or kids with the same issues if they didn’t go to camp,” said Eli. “They are really happy when they’re finally with people who are like them and share the same interests.”

Peer models, such as Eli, participate in all camp activities, live in the same cabins with and serve as role models for the campers with ASD.

“The first year, I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t know what everybody would be like until it actually happened,” Eli said. “You don’t ask a bunch of questions and don’t rush in with anything; take it slow and just be their friend.”

Kelly, a former public school special educator, said Camp Encourage provides a unique, accepting and peaceful environment that’s different from the school setting.

“There are no tests, no bullying, no excluding and no academic demands,” Kelly said. “Each camper is immediately welcomed for exactly who he or she is — and celebrated every moment.

“For me personally, this is where I’m supposed to be,” she said. “It’s what I’m designed to do.”

Additional facts: • New this year is a pilot program for young adult campers from 19 to 26 years old during the June session. Focus will include independent living, goal setting, self advocating and social skills. • One young adult camper will transition to being a counselor this year. • Readers can support Camp Encourage by volunteering, donating or attending benefits throughout the year.

Photo/video opportunities: • camp activities, such as the carnival, fishing, swimming, friendship development activities, self-esteem building activities, zip-lining, a ropes course, horseback riding, and archery • peer model Eli, in his sixth year at Camp Encourage • camp founders, Kelly Lee and Kaye Otten

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