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A Visit to Camp AweSum–a Family Camp
for People with Kids Like Ours

by Carmen Noller Iwaszczenko

Stepping foot inside a private cabin with its own private bathroom wasn’t so “rough” as “roughing it” goes. We were at “Camp AweSum,” which is a camp for families with kids on the autism spectrum. The camp is the brainchild of Dr. Glenis Benson from Madison, WI who specializes in helping kids and families like ours.

After breakfast in the lodge cafeteria, all children (autism kids blended with their siblings) would break into their pre-assigned groups with cute names like “Eaglets” or “Woodpeckers.” Each group would run through a series of well-planned activities, including art workshops, horseback riding, horse grooming, beach time, basket weaving, drumming in a high up gazebo, nature exploring, and much more. Trained staffers attended to the children with the guidance of a thirty-year veteran psychologist. At a bit past noon, the kiddos come back to parents (meaning the parents have had precious time to themselves to relax).

Then there’s lunch. (Did I mention all meals were provided?) After lunch, families go their own ways. The kids had made friends in their little groups and would want to play together for the afternoon–and this would cause the parents to start to get to know one another as they tended to the kids together. There would be nightly activities like bonfires or even a dance night for everyone! Shared tables further broke the ice as families shared meals.

At first, my husband and I were nervous to leave the children in the mornings (especially our son with Asperger’s). But day-by-day, we got braver to just trust he’d be OK (because he was; they all were). And we found an atmosphere like no other we’ve experienced since the diagnosis of our son. For that single week in June, we started to recognize a world where everyone else understood completely and brought no judgment. It was no one’s fault, no one expected anyone to feel guilty, kids made mistakes, and no one got crazy about it.

We parents shared our coping tips around a special gourmet supper one night while kids were treated to a movie. I’d spend one of my kid-free mornings doing yoga with an experienced instructor provided for a parental treat. I’ve never done yoga before other than with DVDs and likely wouldn’t usually seek it out due to being a bit too self-conscious. In person, it was quite relaxing. Two of us, including myself, were brought to tears by the relaxation exercises. It’s such an inexplicable relief to be let free from stress for a little while. It was so great to look forward to someone else’s careful planning—and know that BOTH kids were having a tremendously good time with little friends they’d made.

Family at Camp: Photo by Carmen Noller Iwaszczenko

My 5-year-old daughter was quickly befriended by another “Eaglet”— a 4-year-old sweetheart who’d proclaimed herself “Mayor of Camp.” She graciously granted my daughter co-mayorship, and the two were such a spritely pair that I think the whole camp knew them by the end of the week. My 9-year-old son had met another little guy to pal around with, and by the end of the week, they’d even added a third (the group my husband and I were calling the musketeers). There weren’t just very young kids, the ages spanned up to youngsters in their high teens.

By the end of the week, we’d all done something new and met and spoke with kind families from all over the state and a few from out of state, even. And then, as good things come to an end, BOTH kids cried. There was a lot to worry about coming into camp–what it would be like our first time there and how it would go. Leaving, though, we were ready to go home and do better at just being the best “us” we can be. It was a wonderful week. I hope there are other programs of this sort available for others like us—or at the very least that an idea like this can spread and create new ones with great professionals like Dr. Benson knowing how to provide such a beautifully tailored escape.

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About the Author

Carmen Noller Iwaszczenko Carmen Noller Iwaszczenko is a Midwestern genetics laboratory professional, a wife,  and a mother of two, including a son with high functioning autism. She is teaching herself to navigate life as a parent of a child with Asperger’s as gracefully as possible whilst still managing to maintain a backbone. She is family-focused, yet manages to eek out free time for enjoying photography, Rieslings, and any movie or musical starring a certain Hugh Jackman.

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