A Camp SOAR attendee and volunteer smile as they chase the beach ball at the Levine Jewish Community Center in Charlotte. Camp SOAR celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Andrew Stark/CMG photo

CHARLOTTE – Things were a little different this year at Camp SOAR, which was held June 7 to 11 at the Levine Jewish Community Center.

Due to the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing stricter guidelines imposed by Special Olympics, there was no end-of-week pizza party this year, no formal dance to cap off the week of celebration and far fewer attendees and volunteers than usual.

“To have a room set up like this is like, ‘Did nobody come?,”’ joked media coordinator Al Tinson as he observed three campers and two staff members making some crafts in a near-empty room.

Unlike in the past, campers were only coming to one day of activities during the week. The camp usually draws 400 campers and 150 staffers. Those numbers were down to about 150 campers and 100 volunteers this year.

But after a year of not hosting the event and even with fewer people than usual, there were still smiles and laughter abound at the annual camp, which celebrated its 20th year. This year, like always, the camp welcomed children and adults ages 12 to 71 with intellectual and physical disabilities.

Alondra Rosa, a rising junior at Myers Park High School, caught the eye of some of the volunteers after standing out on both the basketball and tennis courts.

“I’m glad I’m here,” Rosa said while lounging by the pool. “I haven’t done any sports in a while. I like basketball, tennis and arts and crafts. I think I want to do something like photography to combine sports and art.”

Rosa’s experience was a positive one that is shared by most everyone as campers bounced from station to station of events that included swimming, soccer, bingo, arts and crafts, aerobics, tennis, fitness, yoga and dance.

“When you see how much pleasure the campers get out of this, you just want to be a part of it,” Tinson said. “This is the essence of sports.”

Tinson is in his 19th year volunteering at the event and couldn’t be happier as he walked around the sprawling grounds mingling with campers, staff and volunteers.

He pointed to one volunteer, Ella Little, as a prime example of how the helpers tend to return year after year.

Little first volunteered at Camp SOAR as a freshman at Charlotte Catholic High School. Now, 11 years later, Little is studying to be a nurse practitioner with an emphasis on pediatric mental health.

When Tinson said he asked her why she was interested in that, she smiled and said it probably came from volunteering at the camp.

Tinson pointed out others like Stephanie Garner, the JCC director of athletics and countless other staff and volunteers, who are instrumental in getting the camp going.

The best part is that all of the camp is 100% paid through donations so campers and families never have to pay to attend.

And it has become a family affair where campers will bring siblings or volunteers will bring friends and other family members to help when they see the whole Camp SOAR experience.

Tinson’s son, Andy, is also a longtime volunteer serving on the medical staff. The younger Tinson works in the airline industry, but said he hasn’t missed a camp yet and doesn’t intend to stop soon.

“You’ll see someone volunteer and then a few years later a brother or sister will come out from the same family. It’s just something I want to be a part of,” Andy Tinson said. “It’s a very positive experience for everyone. They come here and have a good time as campers and we have fun as volunteers. So it’s just a fun experience.”

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