Staring into the unstructured void of the final weeks of summer vacation, The Flying Point Foundation—a local nonprofit group dedicated to creating and supporting programs and services that enrich the lives of children with autism—identified a growing need for children on the autism spectrum to interact with others in a structured environment in the gap between summer programs and the first day of school.
“I call it the black hole,” said Kim Covell, the group’s founder and president. “It’s usually a week in September, and sometimes two to three weeks in August that the kids are off, and their skills do seem to slip. It’s very hard to find things for them to do during that time.”
Ms. Covell, an assistant editor and columnist for The Press News Group, has a son, Dylan, 11, who has autism and attends the camp with his non-disabled brother, Jack, 10. She and Kerry Ann Gill, a member of the Flying Point Foundation’s board—and whose four children, one of whom has autism, attend the camp—worked together to make Camp Flying Point a reality.
Following a frenzy of “furious” fund-raising for the past year and a half, paired with significant donations from the Kiwanis Club of Southampton Town and the Southampton Bath & Tennis Club, as well as support from the Suffolk County National Bank and a number of individual donors, the camp kicked off on Monday at the Ross School in Bridgehampton. It is a one-week day camp for children with autism—as well as their typically developing peers who are entering the first through eighth grades.
Its founders believe it to be the only inclusion camp of its kind in Suffolk County, and possibly all of Long Island. That makes Camp Flying Point stand out, Ms. Covell said: “Having typically developing children in the same environment goes a long way toward helping children with autism develop essential skills like communication and socialization.”
Heeding the advice of experts in the field of autism to start small, the camp will run for just a week this inaugural year, concluding on Friday, August 27.
Unlike at a traditional camp, where counselors are typically high school students, all eight counselors, as well as the director and assistant director at Camp Flying Point are special education teachers. The Institute for Children with Autism, a Riverhead-based organization, provided free consulting services that included interviewing staff candidates, training the hires and providing one of its own staff members to be on site to support the camp’s mission of building children’s social and communication skills.
A counselor-in-training program provides real job training to older campers aging out of the system, and with the exception of one, all are on the autism spectrum, Ms. Covell said.
Enrollment was capped at 50 participants, with roughly half of the campers being on the autism spectrum. Each is paired in a buddy system with a typically developing camper.
Yoga, art, music, swimming and other recreational pursuits like obstacle courses and relays are among the planned activities. The camp also has an aquatics director and lifeguard on staff.
“The major thing is that we have a lot of camps out in this area, but very few take kids with disabilities,” said Katie Kopka, 46, of East Hampton, who enrolled her five children in the camp, at the recommendation of her son James’s pediatrician. James, 9, is non-verbal autistic. “Of all kids,” she said, “they need the socialization more than the typical child, especially as they get older, because it’s more noticeable that they’re different.”
Another mother, Cristina Sullivan-Magidson, 40, of Bedford in Westchester County, who spends the end of August in Southampton, has three children in the camp, one of whom is on the autism spectrum.
“As soon as I picked up Ryan, he said it was great, he loved it,” she reported about her 9-year-old son’s first day at the camp on Monday. “I want all three of them to make friends, and it seemed like it was really positive.”
Ms. Gill, one of the organizers, said she got the same impression. “It is a happy day for a parent of a child with autism when you can drop your children off at camp and know they will be safe, have fun, and create memories of a perfect summer.”