“When is it my turn?!” cried young Cameron, as he watched child after child extinguish candles during the children’s Good Friday Service at St. Paul’s Church in Chatham. As a child on the Autism spectrum, Cam struggled to understand why he had not been given a chance. After the service, the Rev. Mary Davis, Rector at St. Paul’s, made sure Cam got his chance. She relit all the candles so he could extinguish them, and said, “It’s your turn now!”
In the weeks and months that followed, Davis could not get Cam’s cries out of her mind. St. Paul’s had always been accepting of children with differences, but God was calling the church to do more. That something more became “It’s My Turn” vacation bible camp for children on the Autism spectrum, held for the first time the week of August 21-25, 2017.
“We had three goals for ‘It’s My Turn’,” said Davis, who herself has two children on the Autism spectrum. “First, and most importantly, we wanted the children to know that they are beloved children of God and are welcomed and loved here at St. Paul’s. Second, we wanted to create an environment where the children were celebrated for who they are. Children with Autism often face the daily challenge of being a square peg that society tries to cram into a round hole. In our camp, we wanted to create a world of ‘square holes,’ a place of comfort, ease and fun for our campers. Third, we wanted to give parents and caregivers some respite time at the end of the summer, free from shame or worry. Being a parent of an autistic child is so often isolating as well as emotionally and physically draining.”
To ensure the program’s success, St. Paul’s partnered with the proven and energetic Cross Roads Day Camp staff for programming, music, and games. They also assembled a large team of volunteers from the congregation, each of whom was trained for working with children with Autism.
“The biggest challenge for our volunteers was first recognizing the unique needs of each camper and then allowing ourselves to enter their world with love,” said Davis. “For example, one of our campers loved speaking in ‘cat.’ So our amazing counselors ‘meowed’ their way through conversation and into connection with the camper. Another camper counted fans everywhere he went. So our counselors joined him and the “counting of the fans” became part of the camp's daily routine. We had another camper who wanted to be the leader everywhere we went, so, in every possible way, we let him lead. Still another camper navigated his day by using a countdown clock. The number 14 was his favorite, so, over and over again, we set a timer to 14 which enabled him to relax and participate more fully.”
By all accounts, “It’s My Turn” was a huge success. “I think I speak for everyone involved in the camp when I say it was one of the most rewarding, and exhausting, weeks of my life.” While this was the first year for the camp, Davis has a big vision for its future. “This camp will be an annual event here at St. Paul’s, and our hope is that by partnering with Cross Roads, we can share our curriculum and training with other churches throughout the Diocese. Given the fact that Autism is so prevalent in New Jersey, God is calling us to give all children a turn!”
If you would like more information about “It’s My Turn” camp for children on the Autism spectrum or want to know more about bringing the camp to your church, please contact the Rev. Mary Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allison Pishko is Junior Warden at St. Paul's, Chatham.