CLEARWATER — Last year, Bonnie Monroe searched tirelessly for a summer camp that would enroll her autistic son, Mark. She found Clearwater Community Sailing Center and Rich White, an instructor who taught Mark to sail.
"Rich told me to bring Mark out," recalled Monroe. "After Mark went out with Rich in a Hobie, he said, 'I'm ready to sail, Mom, let's go.' Rich didn't know about working with children who had autism, but he was willing to learn."
The encounter changed Mark's life forever and became the catalyst for Camp Awesome, a new summer camp at the Sailing Center that will be aimed at helping children with disabilities. This evening, the center at 1001 Gulf Blvd. on Sand Key will hold a silent auction and cocktail party to raise money for the camp.
"We will start out this program in a small but phenomenal way and work up to the best way of moving forward," said Sue Steward, the Sailing Center's director. "I'm overwhelmed by the amazing local support and donations we've received."
Mark Monroe, 12, has high functioning autism. By the end of last summer, not only had he learned to sail and paddleboard by himself, he had joined the Sailing Center's regular summer camp activities.
"After meeting him and evaluating him to make sure I could teach him, I started with one-on-one instruction three half-days a week," said White, the sailing instructor. "Within two weeks we went to full days. Mark is amazing. Not only does he sail alone, but he has become much more social."
Monroe was so pleased, she told White she wanted to stay connected with the Sailing Center and become a member.
"That's when the idea about a program that reached out to the community began," said Monroe. She wants to help make the sailing program for children with special needs a success. She's working for it to become financially self-sustainable and able to offer help for families that might not otherwise be able to afford it.
Tonight's event is a big step toward that goal.
"We have incredible items for the silent auction, even signed pictures of local Olympic sailors Zach and Paige Railey," Steward said. "They have been so supportive."
The celebrity siblings will be on hand for tonight's party. It's their last joint appearance in Clearwater before the Olympics.
Besides photographs of the Raileys, items in the auction include a seven-day Caribbean cruise, hotel packages, restaurant vouchers, spa packages, Clearwater Airpark Discover Flight, two tickets to Fantasy of Flight, golf packages and more. You can see the items at clearwatercommunitysailing.org/2012/silent-auction-friday-april-27/#prizes
Since last summer, CARD, or Florida's Center for Autism Related Disabilities, has trained sailing instructors and other Sailing Center staffers so they have a better working knowledge of how to assist children with special needs.
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"When I started working with Mark and asking for help, there was virtually nothing to go by," said White. "I had to learn on my own. We're hoping Camp Awesome will become a pilot sailing program for children with disabilities across the country."
Monroe hopes so too. She gives White and the Sailing Center credit for helping her son discover a new sense of self-confidence.
"Seeing Mark sail, I was in tears," she said. "He was usually hanging out in the corner playing video games. It was amazing how learning to sail helped change my son."