WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. -- For six weeks every summer, Westchester County children with Autism and other developmental disabilities enjoy the season’s annual rites such as swimming, trips and art. North East Westchester Special Recreation, a community based non-profit organization headquartered in Hawthorne, takes up to 80 children and gives each of them a daily dose of summer.
“The kids inspire me every day,’’ said Katlyn Courtney, the daughter of Mount Pleasant resident and ERA Insite Realty agent Kathy Courtney. Katlyn is a Mercy College senior and Health Science major who will work at the camp for the seventh straight year beginning in June. “Seeing how hard they work motivates me. They don’t let Autism stop them. It has helped me to learn that no matter how hard things get, never give up,'' Katlyn said.
Janet Riley, the Executive Director of North East, said the camp accepts children from 12 towns in Westchester County, including Mt. Pleasant. Children ages 4-20 meet at Columbus Elementary School in Thornwood each weekday beginning at 9 a.m. Students are divided into groups based on age and cognitive ability and participate in a variety of activities led by specialists during the course of the morning. The children travel by bus to spend afternoons at area pools before returning to Columbus to finish the day.
Children enjoy activities in art, music, gym, hobbies, crafts and gardening. Some of them travel for trips to Muscoot Farm or Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Connecticut. With a ratio of one camp counselor for every 2-3 children, all of them receive hands-on attention. “Most of our campers find social situations very challenging,” Riley said. “They need a lot of help to develop social relationships.”
Katlyn shared that watching the children emerge socially is one of the highlights of her job as a senior counselor. “It’s a great feeling to watch them get more comfortable with one another,’’ Katlyn said. “When I first started, some of them would not talk to anyone. They would just sit in a corner and be by themselves. Then they start talking with a friend, and they’re not just sitting in the corner. They’ll want to play a game. They’ll want to be involved.”
Katlyn said some students complain about having to attend camp while there, but tell parents a different story. “Sometimes they don’t show it, and some even tell me they don’t like it. But then I will hear from parents that they really enjoyed camp and can’t wait to get there. They just don’t want to show it. Typical teenagers.”
The camp costs $725 for six weeks, modest considering the exorbitant costs of other camps and the services the children receive. High school and college students, some of whom are volunteers, work at the camp along with behavior therapists. The camp does open spots to children who live outside the region it serves if they are available. It primarily serves families in Bedford, Briarcliff, Lewisboro, Mt. Kisco, Mount Pleasant, New Castle, North Castle, North Salem, Pleasantville, Pound Ridge, Sleepy Hollow and Somers.
Riley says the camp’s primary mission is to allow children to have a safe, enjoyable summer. After nearly 40 years in the field and the Executive Director of North East since 1995, she still finds it rewarding to provide a safe summer to children with Autism, in addition to the many other year-round programs that North East offers.
“You see them as young adults now and watch them grow up,’’ Riley said. “You watch the families grow around them. You even become part of their family, and the counselors do too. That’s the rewarding part of the job. It keeps me going.”
Click here to learn more about North East Westchester Special Recreation, including how to support their efforts by donating or volunteering.