Local fifth-graders help save sensory camp for special needs children

Paying it forward

Helen Baller Elementary School teacher Laurie Brown and fifth-graders (from left) Billy Schuldt, Janessa Terry, Edward Kovalenko, Blake Riggs and James delGiudice were instrumental in the effort to raise money to save a special needs sensory camp in Vancouver, attended by school district nurse April Sutherland’s son, Liam.

When Camas resident April Sutherland found out the special needs camp her autistic son attends would be eliminated due to budget cuts, she and other moms rallied to save it.They went to Vancouver City Hall and gave officials a proposal: They’d provide the funding for staff and make reductions, such as eliminating field trips, and volunteering to set up and clean up, if the camp could be saved.

The city agreed with a few conditions, including one that seemed quite daunting: Raise $25,000 in 30 days. Undeterred, Sutherland and other moms did what seemed almost insurmountable. They raised $27,411 in 26 days.

“It was a huge collaboration,” she said.

The group had bracelets made that said, “I love someone with autism,” and “sensory camp rocks,” and gave these away at area businesses for a suggested donation of $5. Sutherland, who works as a nurse for the Camas School District, also brought the bracelets to Helen Baller Elementary. Fifth-grade teacher Laurie Brown donned one immediately, and her students took notice.

“I have kids with autism in my class in the morning, so my students knew right away what those bracelets meant,” Brown said. “They asked if they could try to fund raise to save the camp as well.”

That happened on a Friday afternoon. That evening, Sutherland got a knock on her door from an earnest, red-faced young man who had been walking for hours, trying to raise money for the camp.

“I was so surprised,” she said. “There was nothing in this for them, no rewards or prizes or kudos. But by Tuesday, they had come up with $500.”

Brown was surprised as well.

“They just took off with it,” she said. “I was so proud of them. It’s such a great way for them to realize other people need help and opportunities.

“Because of their efforts, people in the community got on board with this, too.”

Sutherland added that saving the camp is a huge success story.

“It is lifesaving for us to have this program,” she said. “There is no childcare for most of these children, and we can’t leave them with a babysitter because of what happens when they get overwhelmed.”

The camp employees are trained in how to handle children with special needs, especially autism, so parents can feel comfortable leaving their child and doing what most others wouldn’t think twice about, such as running errands, having lunch in a restaurant, or simply enjoying a nice day at the park.

“I wanted to give the kids kudos for their part in this,” Sutherland said. “At this age, if they have an experience like this, I think it will impact them their whole lives.”