EAST MANATEE — Gales of laughter and shrieks of glee reverberated across the pine tree-lined campground like a summer symphony.
Frolicsome kids. A swimming pool. A beautiful day.
What more could one ask for?
“Pool is my favorite part of the day — and girls!” said Jared Brooks, an excited Englewood 17-year-old.
“It’s hot, so this feels good,” said Caitlin Richman, 12, a Lincoln Middle School seventh-grader in August.
Matthew Walker gave a different, deeper reason for his contentment.
“I’m around people who are just like me,” said the Pensacola 12-year-old, removing his goggles. “I don’t feel like I’m alone.”
Walker is autistic.
So are Brooks, Richman and the other campers who were enjoying Dream Oaks Camp, a 10-acre hideaway at Camp Flying Eagle on Upper Manatee River Road.
Now in its ninth year, the residential camp welcomes youths 7 to 17 with physical and developmental disabilities, giving them a place to be independent, gain self-esteem and, well, be kids.
Dream Oaks is the inspiration of Bradenton attorney Eddie Mulock, a triple-organ recipient, who started the camp in 2001 and the Foundation for Dreams, its nonprofit support group, in 1996.
“My original idea was take some kids out there for two weeks and go hiking,” Mulock said. “But my expectations have been far exceeded. We’ve been able to serve so many more kids.”
Dream Oaks averages 500 kids annually, including its monthly weekend camps.
Yet it is the 30 children who go there each week from July through August who define Mulock’s vision.
What summer camp is supposed to be, disabilities or no.
Horseback riding. Arts and crafts. Talent shows.
A big, beautiful swimming pool, too.
“Camp for a child is a safe place, a magical place where you can go, have fun and forget any troubles, be in a new environment,” said program director Whitney Thorsheim.
Scott Durham looked on, smiling as he tried to stay dry on the pool deck.
He’s the camp director.
“We want them to have a regular camp experience, be around kids they can relate to,” he said. “They come here and see other children, who go through the same challenges, having a good time. It’s comforting, therapeutic.”
Dream Oaks has done its counselors a lot of good, too.
Blake Fountain, 20, is a second-year staffer from Murray, Ky., a Mid-Continent University junior and budding missionary.
He was swimming with Miami 11-year-old Ben Bonafiglia on his back.
“I had no idea what I was getting into last year, but there’s no other job like it. It’s a passion,” Fountain said. “It helped me see another way to love and care for people who are considered outcasts. They feel different in a normal world. Now I feel us counselors are trying to fit into their world.”
That caring is fundamental to the staff, most of whom are young adults training in fields of medicine, nursing, special education and therapy.
“Counselors have to be fit for this,” Durham said. “It’s 24/7. They’re in charge of their well-being, bathing them, getting them to bed.
“A lot of our autistic kids have very strict routines. So we let them know what mealtimes are, what time we’re doing what activity and so forth. That helps. It takes campers about a day to get acclimated. Once they do it’s less challenging and they’re really able to stretch out.
“We have parents say they’ve been trying to get their kids to do things by themselves and, all of a sudden, they’re able to do it at camp. It’s amazing to watch these children grow.”
Greta Van Collie has has seen it.
She’s a University of Tampa senior in special education and in her third year as a counselor.
“On Mondays, campers don’t want anything to do with you,” the 21-year-old. “Mom and Dad are who care for them and they’ve never been to camp before. But by Friday, they’re hanging on you. You bond with them. You want to love them. You feel like you’ve accomplished a lot. There’s nothing like it.”
“I love it,” Caitlin Richman said, toweling off. “I’ll probably be here again next year.”
So will Matthew Walker.
“It’s a new feeling of life,” he said and swam off.
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, Fla. 34206 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a phone number for verification.