By Max Williams
After the slightly bumpy but transcendent success of our adult’s camp in April, we at the I Can Network set our sights on the next logical step; a camp for teenagers on the autism spectrum.
This was perhaps the greatest challenge our organization has undertaken to date. Because many of the attendants were under 18, it was a much more delicate operation than running a camp for adults. For duration of the camp, our staff of volunteers effectively became the legal guardians of thirty teenagers.
Thankfully, our Network’s high school program had given some of us experience in this field, and we were even lucky enough to have a student counsellor (the amazing Amy Ross) and a teacher (the effervescent Ann “this is a stick” Marie) among our organization’s staff.
We also scored a fantastic location out in the bush, though getting there did involve venturing into “Wolf Creek” territory where the even radio faded to static and I caught myself wondering if we could even get a signal out if we were attacked by John Jarrett or mutant dingoes.
The first dilemma we had to face as the camp began was convincing thirty members of the post-facebook generation to surrender their digital devices for the weekend, which is a little like getting mother Grizzlies to surrender their cubs. Actually, that’s kind of an unfair statement; some of our staff suffered from similar separation anxiety!
Next we had to hit a very careful balance of pushing our attendants to venture outside their comfort zone without triggering any of their various anxieties or sensitivities.
This actually led to the absolute highlight of the camp for me, where over the course of the weekend we saw many of our attendants make remarkable strides towards conquering their fears and adopting an “I Can” attitude. There were teens who went from being too nervous to speak in front of the group on Friday, to giving highly personal speeches to the same crowd on Sunday. What’s more, several of them who had been quite withdrawn at the beginning of the camp were making friends and actively socializing by its conclusion. Seeing this was one of the most rewarding experiences I can think of.
Another more comical highlight was when a group painting exercise turned into several of our staff covering their hands in paint and pressing them onto each other until they looked like ancient Celtic warriors, much to the amusement of the teens.
In my mind, what really sealed the camp as the I Can Network’s crowning achievement to date was how many messages we received from parents in the following days, telling us how much their kids had loved it.
From now on, we plan to hold similar camps on a regular basis, perhaps bi-annually. I’m proud as hell to be a part of this incredible team, and I can’t wait to see where we go from here.