Outdoors Recreation

Outdoors: Register Soon for Accessible Summer Camp Experiences at Camp Lakey Gap

By Emma Castleberry

Kasual Maxwell-Crudup and Kairo Smoot. Photos courtesy of Camp Lakey Gap

Camp Lakey Gap is an adapted, overnight camp for autistic campers of all ages which takes place at Christmount Christian Assembly in Black Mountain. During their week-long camp experience, campers benefit from a high support ratio, with one staff to every one or two campers during the daytime hours and one awake staff member for every four campers during the night. “Our goal is to provide the summer camp experience to campers who are unable to access traditional camp programs because we understand that summer camp can enrich people’s lives in unique and powerful ways,” says Jon Blalock, a licensed recreational therapist and director of Camp Lakey Gap. ”We believe that the shortage of community-building and recreation-based programming for autistic people is a problem of accessibility.”

The environment at Camp Lakey Gap is guided by tenets that celebrate the inherent value of each person, embrace differences and encourage accommodation so that everyone can participate. “Our program is not a behavior modification program nor is it a mode of ‘treatment’ or ‘therapy,’” says Jon. “While all of those things have their place and can be important aspects of our campers’ lives, we are primarily concerned with offering a recreational experience for its own sake, recognizing the importance of recreation in achieving and maintaining a high quality of life.”

Kat Bodkin’s son, Cal, attended Camp Lakey Gap last summer. It was his first overnight camp experience—something Kat never imagined would be possible for him. “Cal is non-verbal and has many different needs including sensory processing challenges,” says Kat. “We haven’t had the chance to take him to many places equipped and knowledgeable on his varying needs. As I worked with the Camp Lakey Gap Team, I quickly learned how much they knew and understood the autism population. It is rare to find a group who works with children up to adults and has seen and worked with as many as they have.”

Adrian Manchee and Jon Blalock

While Cal was at camp, Kat and her husband received daily updates and pictures. “I can’t really put into words the miracle this was for my husband and me,” says Kat. “To know Cal was somewhere safe, fun, learning new skills and gaining independence was the opportunity of a lifetime; let alone time to ourselves for a few days. It was pure bliss.”

Research has shown that community participation has quantifiable, meaningful results for autistic adults. These camps matter, not only for the campers themselves but for our community as a whole. “One of the ways that I explain this to nonautistic audiences is to ask them to explore what participation in community means for them,” says Jon. “They usually respond by saying that being involved in community-specific experiences leads to more friendships, feelings of efficacy, competence, improved self esteem and benefits related to movement and exercise, among other things. In my experience, as someone who has been involved with the community of autistic adults in Western North Carolina for over 20 years, I have observed that many of these benefits are conferred upon autistic participants.”

Zachary Dill, Dahlia Thompson and Thumper the horse

One of Jon’s most impactful memories from last summer was of a camper named Zach, who needed to be carefully accommodated during a field trip to Harmony Through Horses, an equine therapy facility in Swannanoa. “Zach had ‘loud feet,’” says Jon, “meaning that his sweeping, sporadic and energetic movements around his environment would be dangerous inside the pen where our campers normally visit the horses.”

While playing in a field next to the horse pen, Zach showed interest in a horse named Thumper, and with help from his counselor and the equine therapist, he was able to lead the horse through a field, laughing and smiling the whole way. “Zach’s verbal vocabulary is minimal, probably less than 50 words,” says Jon. “His smile, and his laugh, said more to me about what was happening in that moment than any words can, so long as we are paying attention. This story illustrates the connections that can be made between people through experiences at Camp Lakey Gap. Lines can be drawn to connect Zach, Dahlia, the therapist Terri and the horse Thumper. Through these interactions, there are opportunities for building a sense of community, acceptance and purpose—all things that ensue as the result of participation in programs where people are met where they are and invited to grow at a level that meets their needs.”

Registration for Camp Lakey Gap’s summer 2024 programs will open in January. Learn more at CampLakeyGap.com.

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