Camp for developmental disabilities reaches new heights with more than 300 campers

In its 13th year, Camp SOAR, a camp for people with developmental disabilities, proved the number is actually lucky as it welcomed more campers and volunteers than ever.

South Charlotte residents were among the more than 300 campers and more than 400 volunteers who participated in this year’s Camp SOAR, or Special Olympics Athletic Retreat.

South Charlotte residents were among the more than 300 campers and more than 400 volunteers who participated in this year’s Camp SOAR, or Special Olympics Athletic Retreat.

Camp SOAR, or Special Olympics Athletic Retreat, is held annually at the Sandra and Leon Levine Jewish Community Center off Providence Road. The free week-long camp started Monday, June 10, and wraps up Friday, June 14, with athletes ages 26 and older attending Monday and Tuesday and athletes ages 10 to 25 attending Wednesday and Thursday. All campers return on Friday for an end-of-camp celebration that this year will include magic tricks, a pizza party and a dance.

Bob Bowler, who has been involved in Special Olympics for 29 years, decided to launch the camp when he saw a need for it. Although Special Olympics offers 19 sports, many of them aren’t in season during the summer, and athletes began to call Bowler and ask him when he could come and play. Other athletes expressed a desire to go to camp, but standard camps often wouldn’t accept them as campers. Although therapeutic camps did exist, they often had limited spaces or were too expensive.

“I said, ‘I want to start a special needs camp. I want them to be the stars of the show,’” Bowler said.

One of the big goals for Bowler was to keep the camp free for all participants. He networks and raises funds year-round and has established many community partnerships so the camp can provide food, art supplies, sports equipment and more.

“All (the campers) bring is a swimsuit and a smile,” Bowler said.

At its inception, the camp saw 54 campers and 35 volunteers. This year, it welcomed more than 300 campers and more than 400 volunteers.

“I don’t say no to anyone,” Bowler said, laughing.

This year, Bowler was excited to add therapeutic dogs and aerobics and fitness classes for older athletes who are less interested in the traditional sports. “Every year, I try to tweak it,” he said. The camp still offered the basic sports, including soccer, basketball, bocce, volleyball, floor hockey, swimming and off-site bowling at AMF Carolina Lanes in Matthews.

Each year, campers are paired with a volunteer buddy throughout the day to provide encouragement and help them move between activities. Campers are divided into groups of about 25 based on age, and each group is led by two or three group leaders. Most volunteers are high school students, and many return year after year.

Charlotte Catholic alumnus Joe Fiato has “lost count” of how many years he’s volunteered but estimates it to be nine or 10. He now oversees the relatively new Leader in Training program, where volunteers who hope to be a group leader in the future can “shadow” a group leader to gain experience. This year, he and his five siblings worked at the camp.

The volunteer network consists of not only individuals and families, but also large organizations. Members of the Charlotte Soccer Academy oversee the soccer activities for the campers.
Jamie Luckie, a board member of the Charlotte Soccer Academy, has been bringing volunteers from the academy for about 10 years. “This is just a special thing that these guys do,” he said.

After sports finished in the morning, campers participated in art projects. Eileen Schwartz, founder of the nonprofit Flags Across the Nation, is in charge of a project that will benefit soldiers active in Afghanistan, as well as soldiers in the Wounded Warrior program at Fort Bragg.

This year’s project will donate decorated pillowcases and handmade blankets from Memorial United Methodist Church. However, the main point of the project is to send art supplies to soldiers; campers worked to stuff bags with notepads, markers and pencils.

The project is part of Schwartz’s outreach program to offer free art classes to veterans to thank them for their service. Currently, she has nine veterans taking classes.

Erin Keeter and Dee Griffin are campers who also volunteer with the art program.

“I’ve been coming here for 13 years,” Griffin said. “I haven’t missed one yet.”

Keeter decided to start volunteering because she wanted to “help (the soldiers) out and care for them.” Griffin said she enjoys arts and crafts because it helps her to relax and interact with others more.

Through the years, Bowler has watched both the sports and the art programs grow as the surrounding community becomes more involved, a phenomenon he calls “wildfire networking.” As the camp becomes more integrated into the community, it becomes increasingly able to fulfill its goal: to make campers feel like a part of the community.

“We accentuate their abilities,” Bowler said. “It’s all about increasing their self-esteem, their self-awareness and their self-confidence.”

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