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Summer camp provides a haven for kids in need

Run by the parents of an autistic child, the summer camp is an alternative for parents of special-needs children who need extra attention.

Eleven-year-old Chris Riddle has the makings of a great backhand. And he's pretty good at keeping his eye on the ball and hitting it where he wants it to go, says his instructor, Jim Smith.

Whacking tennis balls on a make-shift court on the playground at the Center for Independence is probably his favorite thing at summer camp, Chris says with a quick smile. When not hitting the balls he's happy to shag them for other kids while he awaits another turn.

Three-year-old Megan Britton likes to color and piece together puzzles in the playroom. Camp is a fun place to be, says Megan. "There's lots of things to do here," she says, before showing off her artwork _ a happy blue-faced clown. "I'm going to put this in my cubby so I can show my mom," she says in a sing-song voice.

For Greg Cohen, the swing set is the ideal place to be. When his dad drops him off in the morning, the 11-year-old makes a beeline for the playground, happy to spend his outside time swinging back and forth.

Greg, Megan and Chris are three of 18 children with a variety of physical or emotional disabilities who attend a summer camp program sponsored by the Pasco Association for Challenged Kids.

The camp, in its third year, is the brainchild of Greg's parents, Paula and Barry Cohen, who saw a need to provide a service for special-needs children like their son.

Greg, who is autistic, is in the Exceptional Student Education program at Cotee River Elementary during the school year and during summer school. But two three-week gaps _ before and after summer school takes place _ present a problem for both the Greg and his parents.

During the first break, the Cohens hire a babysitter to look after their son, who needs one-on-one care. It's an expensive proposition for the parents and a boring one for their son, who likes to be around the other children.

"We don't have the option to send Greg to regular summer camps like the "Y,' " Paula Cohen said. "We found that even those places that claim they take special-needs children weren't equipped to deal with special needs."

The Cohens said they first approached the Pasco School Board about providing year-round services for their son. When that idea went nowhere, they decided to get the ball rolling on their own.

"We needed to do something for kids like Greg," Barry Cohen said. "Autistic kids need routines."

Early on, the Cohens approached state Rep. Mike Fasano. Now a state grant funds the camp, which costs approximately $10,000 to run each year, along with a $2,500 donation from Publix Supermarkets and occasional smaller donations from local businesses. The Center for Independence in Holiday has provided space for the camp, free of charge, for the past three years.

The camp is a collaborative effort between the Cohens. Paula Cohen, who works as an administrative assistant for Catholic Charities, sees to the scheduling of activities and hiring of staff _ all of whom have experience working with children with special needs. She also makes arrangements for special events. Barry Cohen, who works nights as an X-ray technician for H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, sees to the paperwork.

The camp, in a way, is much like other camps, said supervisor Myrtle Boyce. The kids have a chance to partake in arts and crafts activities _ making pasta jewelry, string baskets and sock puppets. There's water day, which is always a big success, said Boyce, along with outdoor games and visits from the fire department, petting zooand Gabbie the Clown, who last Wednesday had most of her audience enthralled with her magic tricks and balloon animals.

Because of the various needs of the kids, the camp has to be more flexible _ and staffed with those with a lot of patience, Boyce said.

Like Jane Johnston, who has no problem spending a good part of her morning trailing an autistic camper who is having a tough time sitting still during Gabbie's performance and is in need of a little extra care.

"I love it, it's great," said Johnston, who during the school year works as a para-professional with emotionally handicapped kids at Anclote Elementary School. "At school it's more academic; they only get to play at recess. Here they get to play all day."

That's the point, said Paula Cohen.

"Due to their disabilities, they're constantly going for therapies. We're not trying to go for academics. We just want them to have a chance to have fun for those few weeks," she said.

The camp helps out "big time," said Juanita Kibbey. A year ago she adopted her 8-year-old grandson, Michael Dixon, who attends the camp. Raising a child _ especially one with special needs _ was not something Kibbey expected to be doing at this time of her life. But the other option was foster care. "I just couldn't do that," she said.

"He's in special ed _ he's severly emotional disabled, has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome," Kibbey said. "When he's not here he has to be confined to the house or the back yard. He can't go to a regular camp because he needs one-on-one attention. This gives me a break . . . and gives him a chance to be with other kids. He likes that."

The Cohens would like to offer that same opportunity to more kids and their parents, said Paula Cohen, adding that the program is now limited to children of elementary school age. But that would mean finding additional funding and donations as well as another program site.

"It might not seem like we'd need a lot of money for 18 kids," said Barry Cohen, adding that 90 percent of the camp budget goes to salaries.

"At a regular camp you might have one counselor for about 15 or 20 kids. Here, because the kids need more individualized care, the staffing is more one-on-one."

The summer camp experience is one that should be extended to all kids, Barry Cohen said.

"It doesn't matter what kind of disability a kid has _ they're still kids and they still want to have fun."

_ To contact the Pasco Association for Challenged Kids Inc. call (727) 372-9516 or send e-mail to bacpackjuno.com.

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