Siskey YMCA Camp Reaches for New Heights

YMCA gives kids with autism a chance to experience summer camp.

CHARLOTTE, NC — Every kid deserves the chance to attend summer camp. The Siskey YMCA in Matthews has a special program, immersing children with autism and other disabilities into that camp experience, side-by-side with everyone else.

Kids and summer camp go together like peanut butter and jelly.

The Siskey’s Camp Hemby is home to Camp Eagle Rock for eleven weeks this summer, with Camp Boomerang – an inclusive camp for kids with autism and other disabilities – running at the same time for six of those.

“They are included in a group with about 5 or 6 neurotypically functioning children as well,” says Hemby Program Director Mike Jones. “And participating in the same activities that our traditional campers do.”

Volunteer counselors work with campers like Will Thames, a 15-year-old student at Myers Park High School who is blind from birth.

“It took me a little while to get up there,” says Will. “But as the years went on, I was becoming quicker at climbing the tower. So overall, I think it’s a lot of fun.”

Will has mastered the climbing tower in four years as a camper, drawing cheers and support from his peers every time he goes to the top.

The camp also uses swimming, games and music to help bridge any gaps between campers.

“The nice thing about Camp Boomerang is it’s inclusive,” says camp music therapist Gretchen Benner. “So you have typical developing peers to help model, encourage, curiously say ‘like what’s going on?’ So it’s nice just to normalize that, since they’re going to be sitting next to them potentially in school.”

“And I like the music they play,” says Will. “I just like everything about this camp. It’s just the atmosphere, the energy, all day.”

Music is a huge part of will’s life. The piano player, and sometimes drummer, even got the chance to meet his idol last year, making a new friend in music icon Stevie Wonder.

“Will has just been a little ball of sunshine,” says Camp Boomerang counselor Hannah Rhyne, who buddies with Will. “He brightens everyone else at camp. We always talk about he’s Mr. Popular, but in the best kind of way, because of his heart.”

“I think I was like the first blind one to ever come to this camp,” says Will. “And I think that’s sort of special for other people. They’re getting to learn something from me. I really do think I’m influencing people.”

Will is set to age out of Camp Boomerang next summer, but something tells me he may be coming back as a special counselor.