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Pasco camp for special-needs kids celebrates 20 years

NEW PORT RICHEY

With dollar store balloons and Publix flowers gathered in her arms, Rocio Hanson cuts through the commotion of the small room.

She moves through kids, parents and camp counselors who are drinking punch and eating cake off paper plates, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. Some faces are new; others she has known for more than a decade and have become like a second family to her and her daughter, Julie Hanson.

Julie, 23, was born with cerebral palsy and until this year — since the age of 6 — had attended the nonprofit Pasco Association for Challenged Kids summer camp every year. Julie said goodbye to summers at the camp after moving into an adult training program, but Rocio said they wanted to stop by this year and say thank you.

"These people have meant the world to us," Rocio said.

The camp, which organizers say is Pasco's only summer camp for disabled children, this year celebrated 20 years of providing summer fun to kids who can't attend traditional summer camps because of disabilities.

The camp this year had 31 participants, ages 4 to 21, who have disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. The camp also had a full-time nurse as well as 12 counselors who organized arts and crafts, games and other activities over three weeks in July at the Genesis School in New Port Richey, which has donated its building to the program for the past five years.

It's given an amazing opportunity to young people around Pasco County such as Kimmy Gilliland, 21, who has made too many friends to name at the camp over the 10 years she has attended. For Hunter Oliver, 16, getting to color, play games and go outside for a game of basketball are all highlights.

Funds for the camp come primarily from $36,000 of state money, and most of it goes to pay insurance and staffers who are experienced in working with special-needs kids. Fundraisers, as well as a $270-per-child fee, help pay for supplies and other expenses. Full and partial scholarships are available for families with financial need.

The idea of reaching this milestone would have been inconceivable 20 years ago, said founders Paula and Barry Cohen.

The two never intended to create a staple in the community, only to solve a personal challenge: how to give their son, Gregory, who has autism, something to do during the summer.

Originally, they tried going to his school and asking if it would make services he received during the school year available year-round.

"That went over like a lead balloon," Barry said.

After that, the Cohens decided to take an alternative approach — driving to the office of a state legislator and asking if there was room in the state budget for a new kind of summer camp.

Mike Fasano remembers that day. The longtime state legislator, now Pasco County's tax collector, was 33 at the time and in his first few years in the Florida House of Representatives when Barry and Gregory came into his office on Massachusetts Avenue.

It was a "wow" moment, Fasano said, because he saw an opportunity to make a difference in the community on an issue that often gets overlooked.

"These are the little things that sometimes public servants and many times legislators are totally unfamiliar with," Fasano said. "And it's not their fault. There are no high-paid lobbyists in Tallahassee that are advocating for summer camps for kids with special needs."

That's what Fasano says impresses him most after all these years: Barry and Paula Cohen never have stepped away from advocacy or lost their passion for helping kids, despite the fact that their own son, now 29, left the program 11 years ago.

And while the Cohens said they never planned to keep the camp running this long, they also never considered stopping.

"We look at these kids and their families as our extended family," Paula said.

Paula said parents and kids look forward to this short time in July every year because it allows the kids to get out of the house, see friends and have a summer camp experience that otherwise would be denied them.

The dedication of the Cohens and the camp staff has had its challenges over the years, most notably with funding.

• In 2003, the camp temporarily closed after its state funding was cut. Donations came in days after the closure announcement, and the camp was revived.

• Former Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed $50,000 allocated for the nonprofit organization in 2005 before earmarking the same amount a week later in a different budget.

• During the recession, the camp lost its funding in the 2008-09 state budget, but again stayed open thanks to donations.

In recent years, the camp's finances have been more stable, with the annual $36,000 allocation finding a home in the Department of Juvenile Justice's budget. Barry Cohen said that may seem like a strange juxtaposition. But Juvenile Justice has some of the most transparent and communicative people he's worked with, he said, so the arrangement works well.

Now the biggest issue has shifted to its founders and how long they can keep it going.

"When we're ready to hang it up, I don't know what's going to happen," Paula Cohen said.

Creating a nonprofit from scratch and running it for 20 years has been rewarding for the Cohens, but also exhausting at times. Barry balances the camp with a night-shift job as an X-ray technician; Paula is a teaching aide at Gulf Trace Elementary School. No one has expressed interest in taking over leadership, and, to their knowledge, nothing else like their camp exists or is in the works, meaning their retirement would leave a lot of kids and parents stranded.

For that reason, they say they are starting to feel the pressure of what lies ahead. For now, they don't have an answer other than that as long as there is funding available, they'll be here next year. But they also hope that someone, at some point, will offer to take the reins.

The camp is still filled with enough rewarding experiences to remind the Cohens why they do this.

They see themselves in parents like Rocio Hanson, who remembers bringing Julie to the camp almost two decades ago, apprehensive and scared about leaving her child in the hands of others.

Barry said he teared up when he saw the thank-you gifts Rocio and Julie brought and held the card in his hands. These moments, he said, are when he remembers the purpose of the camp.

"It tells me we're doing the right thing," he said.

Contact Chris Bowling at cbowling@tampabay.com or at (813) 435-7308. Follow @chrismbowling.

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