By Janis Russell
Hear a podcast of our interview aired on KNSJ radio: click here
January 8, 2016 (San Diego’s East County) - Camp Onward is designed for teens with Asperger’s Syndrome to help with social skills. East County Magazine recently sat down with founder Nancy Hagan, director Kathy Gerstenberg, and parent of a kid with Asperger’s Syndrome, Laura Preble. We asked them questions about how the camp got started, its impact on the kids and parents, and what the camp is like among other topics.
Hagan is a retired speech pathologist at Grossmont High’s Academic Mastery Program that worked specifically with high school students who had high functioning autism. She met Gerstenberg there, where Gerstenberg was a teacher. They noticed that kids didn’t take those social skills they learned in the program back home over the weekends, summer, or holidays. Hagan wanted to come up with a place for these kids to hang out. Hagan’s family then suggested she start something. In 2011/2012, they bought a nine acre ranch in Jamul, where they brought in horses goats, sheep, dogs, cats, and all types of animals. Then kids were brought out.
Hagan gave a description of the camp. “Camp Onward is a camp that meets every other Saturday…it’s a chance for teens that have social difficulties to get together, have fun, get outdoors, be around animals, and learn a lot of different life skills. The basic premise is that kids that have social skills need social areas to be able to grow in…we give them that place to make friends and hang out.” The camp was founded in March 2012. The results of the camp have been “awesome...we keep the camp to about six students and when we started in 2012, four of those students stayed with us from their freshmen to their senior years of high school. And three of the four have gone on to college, one in Long Beach, one in Montana, and one at Grossmont College.”
Hagan defined Asperger’s Syndrome as “a high functioning autism. They’ve just recently changed the name, so that we don’t really use the term ‘Asperger’s’ any longer. But autism covers a wide spectrum of kids that have disabilities. They don’t even speak at all to high functioning autism, where these kids are very verbal. However, the social pragmatics is the real difficulty. They have trouble making friends and keeping friends. They have trouble reading body language. They have trouble responding appropriately in situations. They’re often the kid that others say, ‘Oh he’s the weird one. She’s the odd man out.’ However, they are delightful people, have a lot to offer, and simply need a chance to be in a place where they can be heard.”
Gesternberg is a special-education teacher and autism specialist. She has a Masters of Science. She started working in Grossmont High’s Academic Mastery Program. If kids are interested in the camp, Gersternberg suggests that kids come with their parents to try it out for a day. The cost is $100 for each session or $360 for all four sessions. This camp is advertised through their open house, brochures sent to the high schools, word of mouth, Facebook page, and their website. The camp runs for four hours (9am-1pm), except for August and September. Their email is email@example.com. Their Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Camp-Onward/417084438369809. Their phone is (619) 202-6029. Asked about the activities offered, Gersternberg said activities are “broken down into four different segments. There’s cooking, woodworking, gardening, games, discussions and debates, obstacle courses, working with the animals, driving the tractors, capture the flag, disc golf, and so much more.” The same kids come back year after year. In fact, at the last session, one of those original four kids came back to visit for a day. “(The difference I saw in him) was incredible. I volunteered when he first started, and over the four years, he is a different man,” Gersternberg commented.
Preble heard about the camp through Gesternberg, who is her co-worker. “[Gersternberg] was very excited about [the camp and] very enthusiastic. She said, ‘Oh, your son should come to the camp.’” Her son is Noel Klich, who is 13 years old. “He loves being outside, he loves building, but his biggest passion is really computers, which is really not unusual for kids with Asperger’s. They really generally love computers. So, getting him away from [computers] was a huge thing for me. I wanted him to be outside and have some experience..with people in real life and working in nature because I found that he’s much more calm and relaxed when he has time in nature. I think that’s true of a lot of kids, and they don’t have that opportunity.
“The process of signing up “was very, very easy. There’s an enrollment packet that just asks for information, that’s basic that you would do at any camp. Then that’s pretty much it… I think the fact that they invite parents and kids to come check out the camp first really lessens the anxiety. Another thing with kids with Asperger’s is that they’re very, normally, resistant to new things and change. It makes them kind of nervous, I have found with my son.” Checking out the camp first lessened her son’s anxiety, and Preble even told him he didn’t have to go to the camp if he didn’t like it. He was at first resistant towards the camp, but after checking it out, he was open towards attending. “Now, of course, it’s his favorite thing to do.” He’s disappointed when it’s not the camp week.
“Kathy has done so many amazing activities. And when I asked him..what he likes best about the camp, he [says], ‘Well, we just do unique things you don’t do anywhere else..and I love being around other kids that are like me. And [I like] the fact that Nancy and Kathy have made it a fun place to be, not a school place..” Her son just started attending this camp for one session (four weeks) so far. They’re just finishing up on January 2. They’ve done a DIY (do-it-yourself) gumball machine, building things, and making presents and cards. They’ve also done a snowman obstacle course. “[My son] just loves it, and I think he’s probably gonna wanna keep going… [The camp] is so special. It’s such a great privilege to be able to go there and see him love it.”
Gersternberg shared a quote from a past participant, which can be found in their brochure. The student states, “I enjoy being around other kids who are like me, and making friends.”
Preble was resistant at first to her son having Asperger’s. “I did not want to accept it. My son is very verbal, very creative, and very smart. I really didn’t want that to be a factor in our lives…” Her husband thought that Asperger’s was a possibility. “Eventually, I had to accept it. And when I did accept it, I started doing a lot of research and read because that’s what I do. I’m a teacher. And I started to figure out that a lot of kids who have Asperger’s..(are very gifted and have a different way of looking at the world).” When Preble explained to her son a positive benefit of Asperger’s, her son wasn’t ashamed of having it. He was wondering if he should tell people, if it was bad, or if he did something wrong. Now he won’t be timid about Asperger’s; he even goes into a grocery store now and announces it. Her son started having issues in kindergarten, but he was most likely officially diagnosed in 3rd grade. Most kids don’t get diagnosed until later in life when there are verbal social skills to assess.
There have definitely been challenges for Preble’s son, especially with school. “I think it’s getting better because there’s more of an awareness. But it’s always difficult because those kids don’t just do well in huge groups. And, in California, many of our classes are 35-40 kids… Most kids that I’ve met with Asperger’s don’t do well in huge crowds… We finally have him in a very good place… It took an awful lot of work; it’s like a second job really for parents who have kids like this. There are resources, but they’re hard to find and you have to really be diligent, pushing for your kid. You have to really advocate for your kid.”
Preble says, “I first fell in love with the camp when I first got there…I guess what it feels like is that you’re going through the wardrobe in Narnia because there’s this beautiful, big, rod iron fence and you have through it. And it’s just this sense of peace, pure air, [and it’s] silent and beautiful. And then, when you walk in the house, where the camp centers, it just feels like you’re going home. It’s like you’re going into your home. It’s beautiful, comfortable, it feels like there’s always cookies baking… It’s just the kind of place where you want to be… I just felt so happy that Noel would have a place, where he would be safe and cared for in the way that I care for him. And then he would find other people that he could relate to and talk to, and that he would have that opportunity. In a lot of places, kids don’t have it, they don’t fit, and people don’t know what to do with them, like in regular camps.”
Hagan then shared more about the camp staff and volunteers. “I think they make it happen. I really do. [They’re good at] relating to the kids. My daughter, Alea, is 29, but she’s like a big kid. She and Miriam Lopez, who has volunteered with us since the very beginning [as a high school junior at Grossmont]...are absolutely amazing with these kids. They can relate to just about any topic that is brought up, from Pokemon to Doctor Who, to things I’ve never heard about of. It doesn’t matter; these two know all about it. And they’re more than willing to get in there [and] be physical. They chase each other. One of the big wins on the obstacle courses is when you come to the end and you’re on horseback. You get to dip a cup in water and dump it over poor Alea’s head. And she’s a great sport for anything like that. Our other two long-term volunteers, my husband Mike and our daughter-in-law’s father..Bill Conway..have been amazing. They work with the kids in the area of building [and] construction. Bill is a retired construction worker/contractor. He gets after those kids that started not being able to tell the difference between a hammer and screwdriver end up practicing with welding. They’ve built an entire, huge garden, raised bed gardens, tables. They’ve built chicken coops. The kids are amazing. It’s really a working ranch. So, when you come out, you’re put to work, whether it’s cooking..gardening [or] learning veterinary work with horses. We’ve tried it all, and they have responded beautifully.”
Some last thoughts Hagan wanted to share is , “You don’t know until you try it. Kids, you’re welcome to come on out, really anytime. Give us a call. Someone’s always up there. We welcome people coming up. We love to show the place off. We don’t have cookies all the time, but if we know you’re coming, we’ll be glad to bake them. So, give it a go.”
Gersternberg shared, “You can never judge a book by its cover. And that goes the same with the students, the campers, and the camp. Come out, give it a try, [and] you’re always welcome.”
Preble said, “For parents of kids with Asperger’s, this is an incredible opportunity to have your child be in a place where they’re unconditionally accepted and loved. And that is a rare thing. And if you have a kid on the spectrum, you know what I’m talking about. So, if you do, please check it out, and especially because it’s for teens, there aren’t a lot of things for them. Please..come check it out. You’ll be very relieved and happy to find a great place for your kid.
For more information, visit: http://www.camponward.net/.