EAST MANATEE -- For a child with special needs, a place to go where they can just be an ordinary kid can be a life-changing experience.
For their parents, a week of respite can be a godsend.
The Foundation for Dreams provides that oasis for kids 7-17 years old with Dream Oaks Camp, on the grounds of the area's Boy Scouts camp, Camp Flying Eagle, on Little Manatee River Road.
The foundation provides eight one-week summer camps for children with a wide range of physical and emotional disabilities, including autism, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injuries.
Elena Cassella, the foundation's director of development and fundraising, said the camp has grown in recent years because the number of children with disabilities is growing nationwide.
"In the last decade, the number of children diagnosed with autism has grown 600 percent," she said.
"There's a need here," Cassella said.
In Manatee County alone, more than 7,500 children have been identified by the Manatee County School District as needing Exceptional Student Education, and therefore eligible to attend Dream Oaks Camp, according to school district spokesman Mike Barber.
It takes about $500,000 a year to run the foundation's weeklong residential camps, as well as several day and weekend camps, she said. The foundation conducts fundraisers and is supported by local groups and businesses.
Tropicana recently donated risers and railings to create a stage in the camp's dining hall, where campers can sing and do skits.
The Bradenton Kiwanis Club has paid for paving a road on the property, making it easier for wheelchair-bound campers to get around.
Other agencies and groups that contribute to Dream Oaks include the Service Club of Manatee, the Manatee County Foundation, Rotary Club of Lakewood Ranch and the Lakewood Ranch Foundation.
Some weeks of camp are devoted to kids with a single need, such as autism, and the camp is specially formatted to their needs.
"Autism is a little dif-ferent," said the camp's program director, Alicia Pasko .
"They have sensory issues, so the lights are a little dimmer, the music is toned down," she said. "The food won't have as much texture as in other weeks."
But other than that, Dream Oaks participants get the same experience as any other child at a summer camp, including swimming, arts and crafts, boating and sports, and even yoga.
"We're not going to tell a child 'they can't,'" Pasko said. "We're like Mary Poppins. We have tricks in our bag. We'll make it happen. We just have to think things out. Anything they want to do, we'll do."
Pasko credits the counselors with that can-do attitude.
"It's my staff that makes it possible. They're fantastic."
Counselors are screened and must complete a weeklong 80-hour training program to be on staff. Camper-to-counselor ratios are never higher than 3-1, Cassella said.
Mike McNeillie, a 21-year-old from Plymouth, England, described his counseling experience at Dream Oaks Camp -- his first time in the U.S. -- as "surreal."
McNeillie, who has a degree in sports therapy, said places like Dream Oaks Camp don't exist in Great Britain.
"It's fantastic. I never thought kids the age of 7 to 17 would teach me so much in such a short amount of time," he said, with their spirit and willingness to try new things. "It really puts your life into perspective, how lucky we are and how great these kids are."
The life experience they take away from camp is life-changing, Cassella said.
"It lets them be kids," McNeillie added.
The Foundation for Dreams will be holding the Tournament for Dreams golf event Aug. 29-30 at IMG Academy Golf Club. Information: 941-746-5659.
Jim DeLa, East Manatee editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JimDeLaBH.