LONDON — Four years ago, Rachel Hacker's oldest son was getting ready for a summer full of camps: football, basketball and 4-H.
But Hacker worried that her middle son, Jacob, who is mildly autistic, would be left with nothing to do.
Hacker, a preschool teacher, teamed up with Kelly Lewis, the mother of one of her students who also has an autistic son, to create a day camp aimed at children with special needs: Camp L.E.A.P. (Learning Experiences at Play).
"We thought it would be great if we could create that summer experience for them," Lewis said.
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This is the fourth year for the weeklong camp and the first at London Elementary School. Previously, the camp was held at the First Christian Church of London, Hacker said.
The 85 campers have a structured daily schedule, which includes art, recreation and music classes, and lessons in social skills and community contributions, she said. Most of the campers have autism, which is a range of developmental disabilities characterized by impaired communication and social skills.
"We want to teach the kids that they need to give back to the community that supports them," Hacker said.
The camp is funded entirely by community donations, she said.
This year, the campers are creating a bird sanctuary for the residents of Laurel Heights, a London assisted living community, and will be making bird houses, bird feeders, sun catchers and wind chimes and painting metal flowers and frogs, she said.
The campers have also gotten a chance to play different sports during the week, including baseball, soccer and kick boxing, Hacker said.
Each of the campers has an individual mentor who is a volunteer high-school or college student, she said.
There are also about 20 "role model" students at the camp, usually the children of staffers or siblings of the campers, "to keep the flow going," Lewis said.
A.J. Garland, a rising senior at Eastern Kentucky University, has been working at the camp for three years. The children have had such an effect on her, she changed her career path, she said.
Garland is now studying special education.
"They are truly amazing," she said. "A lot of times, people just dismiss them."
Garland, one of the two teachers for the 5- and 6-year-old class, oversees the mentors and campers in her class and makes sure everything is running smoothly.
Most of Garland's mentors are first-timers, she said.
"They were really apprehensive about working with the kids at first," Garland said. "But now they've opened up and really gotten to know the kids, and they see that they have personalities just like us."
Dustin Lawson, 16, said he enjoyed playing soccer with his 6-year-old buddy, Gabriel.
Lawson, a first-year mentor, said he wants to come back again and work next summer.
"It's made me realize how lucky I am," he said.