Dream Oaks Camp doubles enrollment in East Manatee

Dream Oaks Camp opened its 14th camping season this week with 43 campers, about double the enrollment of last year. Dream Oaks also has a new executive director, Elena Cassella.

First-year counselor Devonte Ousley, 20, said the goal for the campers, all of whom have disabilities or serious illnesses, is for them to have the best summer of their lives.

“The kids get to come out, have fun, and not be judged,” said Ousley, a 2013 grad of Manatee School for the Arts. “There is something different about everyone, but the things that make us different, somehow make us the same.”

Thursday, the campers, ranging in age from 7 to 17, were taking part in a variety of activities, including taking a pontoon boat ride on the Upper Manatee River with Mark Stukey, owner of Ray’s Canoe Hideaway, coloring masks of their favorite superheroes, and taking impressions of tree bark and other parts of the natural world using Play-Doh.

Dream Oaks Camp staff has worked hard to get the word out about the camp through autism camps, nurses fairs and more, said Cassella, who was director of development until appointed to the director’s job this month.

“We are trying to put out more advocates into the community. A direct result of that is all the new children,” Cassella said. “We have the potential to grow.”

Campers come to camp with two or three goals from their families, which could include working on their socialization or behavorial skills, or perhaps dressing themselves, Cassella said.

Most of the campers come from the Bradenton-Sarasota area, where 15,000 children have been diagnosed with disabilities, Cassella said.

In addition to providing an adventure for the campers, the staff also works with them on the special requests from their families, she said.

The camp can be life-changing for the camper, the families and the counselors, Cassella said, adding that another benefit is respite for the parents, responsible for 24-hour care for a child with special needs.

Donna Pasko, camp operations director, said the staff focuses on abilities, rather than inabilities.

“We all have strengths and weaknesses,” Pasko said.

Jeremy Purvin, a program specialist from Orlando, said the highlight for him is seeing the campers enjoying an adventure.

“Just seeing the kids faces light up when they come out here,” Purvin said.

For more information about Dream Oaks Camp, visit foundationfordreams.org.

James A. Jones Jr.: 941-745-7053, @jajones1