This summer, children and adults with special needs in north Mississippi are carrying forward special memories that will last a lifetime after taking part in a summer camp designed just for them called Camp B.O.L.D.
Camp B.O.L.D., a one-week summer day camp program for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is hosted by The Arc Northwest Mississippi, a local advocacy group for individuals with disabilities.
The Arc offered the camp to four different age groups during the month of June: three to six-year-olds during the week of June 4, seven to nine-year-olds during the week of June 10, 10 to 14-year-olds during the week of June 17 and 15-year-olds and older during the week of June 24. The camp took place at Longview Heights Baptist Church in Olive Branch.
Rebecca Treadway, executive director of The Arc Northwest Mississippi, leads the camp and is passionate about helping those with disabilities thrive.
"We are the camp for the kids that can't go to camp," Treadway said. "We want to create a typical camp experience that they're excited to be at and where they feel like a typical child just doing normal camp things."
Participants had the chance to take part in various daily activities, including art, music, crafts, inflatables, cup cake decorating, ice cream sundaes, movies and Zumba. Campers were paired with student counselors from local middle schools, high schools and colleges during the week, and the staff also included highly qualified special education teachers, assistants and behavioral specialists.
"Not only are we serving the campers, but we're teaching the counselors to be advocates and friends to individuals with special needs," Treadway said.
About 180 campers came through over the course of the four weeks, with 30 campers in the first week and 50 campers in each of the other three weeks. Treadway noted that the camp always has a waiting list and that the need is "endless." Most campers have a diagnosis of a neurological disorder such as autism, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy.
Camp B.O.L.D. was started about 17 years ago by Dr. Sheila Williamson. At the time, the camp was just for kids with autism and was only held one week. It had a slow start, and Williamson had to call and beg people to send their children to the camp. However, as word eventually spread and people began to trust them, the camp began expanding and separating participants into age groups. The camp has been growing ever since.
Camp B.O.L.D. stands for Balance, Opportunity, Learning and Determination.
"Balance is just about having friends, doing well in academics, just how we keep our life in check," Treadway said. "[And] everybody needs opportunities, especially kids with special needs. Kids with special needs definitely need to be given an opportunity to feel bold, to build their self-confidence. They need opportunities to do great things."
The camp also helps participants learn about social behavior.
"That's what we're really doing here, learning how to be a friend, counselors learning how to be a friend to someone with special needs, those with special needs learning how to be a friend to everyone else," Treadway said.
The final core focus encourages participants to try new things.
"Determination is the determination to go outside of yourself and to learn new things," Treadway said. "Sometimes kids, especially with autism, like only what they like. So here, we have them do some non-preferred things."
Treadway expressed her appreciation for the community support that makes a camp like this possible.
"We are very thankful to Longview Heights Baptist Church," Treadway said. "We could not run this camp if it were not for them giving us this space. We charge the campers very minimal. They pay $50 to come for the week. Honestly, the camp actually costs about $200 per camper. All the rest of it is fundraised through sponsorships. We just could never do camp without the community support. We're very thankful that every year we're able to hit the mark. The United Way helps us, this church helps us. In the end, it's all for the kids."
Brent Walker is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.