by Yustin Riopko
CHARLOTTE – One of the biggest and most successful special needs summer camps in the country teamed up with local law enforcement agencies to provide the Charlotte community with another year of fun and love.
Camp SOAR (Special Olympics Athletic Retreat) is a summer camp created by Bob Bowler, a Special Olympics coach of 34 years, and a huge network of caring and experienced volunteers. Bowler and his team’s goal is to provide equal opportunities for growth and fun to people with intellectual disabilities.
As a coach, Bowler was constantly asked to start a summer camp. Most other camps couldn’t accommodate his athletes, and sometimes they were made fun of at those that could.
Eighteen years ago, the Levine Jewish Community Center agreed to host SOAR. The camp has expanded in size from 35 volunteers and 54 campers to about 400 volunteers and 380 campers. Originally three days long, the camp now lasts a full week with two days for campers aged 12 to 25, two days for campers 26 and older and one more day for everyone to return.
“It’s a place to have them come out and enjoy a camping experience in a safe and productive environment,” Bowler said. “It’s really to teach campers social skills, work on their self-esteem and make them feel part of the community. What we encourage is unification and acceptance.”
Some of the campers had expressed discomfort around police. That’s why this year Camp SOAR brought in officers from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to spend time with them and take part in activities.
Gracie Flanagan is a longtime volunteer and group leader coordinator at Camp SOAR. She said the younger campers hold negative stereotypes about police, especially in light of recent shootings and riots, because they grew up in what she called the “Ferguson era.”
“You only see the police when something’s wrong,” Flanagan said. “But we want the campers to know the police are there for things going right – to help you. Having them here, especially having them here in uniform, with guns, with handcuffs, these things that have negative connotations – and to see that in a positive light – is tremendous for our campers.”
Matthews Police Officer and 14-year camp volunteer Nicole Fiato agreed the exposure could be good for easing the campers’ nerves.
“There’s been this perception in the media that all police are bad and you should be scared,” Fiato said. “We’ve really broken down that barrier this week, to show that police are humans, too.”
Fiato pointed out the exposure wasn’t just good for the camp’s athletes, but also for the officers who visited.
“A lot of people are scared to interact with the community because they don’t know about it,” Fiato said. “It’s the fear of doing something wrong. They don’t want to offend somebody or hurt somebody or do the wrong thing. This week has been about showing law enforcement how to approach someone who has the abilities these people have.”
Officers spent time with campers, playing sports like basketball and bocce, competing in bingo and drawing.
Arts and crafts director Eileen Schwartz organized two activities for campers: drawing self-portraits and decorating hats for campers and officers to sign.
“Art is very healing,” Schwartz said. “Given that a lot of campers interacted with the police while they were drawing – that naturally opens up space, where if there were any walls there, they disappear, because they were engaged together making art. On some levels, it seems magical.”
Fiato noted an improved chemistry between the officers and the campers.
“On the first day, [police] were all kind of hesitant, because they didn’t know how to interact with people,” Fiato said. “And then by bingo yesterday, everyone was like best friends.”
CMPD officers called the experience enlightening.
“I’m not around special needs people usually in my job,” Officer John Causey said. “This is more practical. We’ve done the CIT classroom portions, but this is just to actually get out and talk. You don’t even have to go through a class to understand special needs people. It’s just about talking and relating. The campers may sound different or look different, but we’re all the same.”
CMPD Officer Jason Hooven thought the program helped campers see law-enforcement as “just people.”
“We’re all different, so you have to see us on an individual level to determine if it’s somebody you’re comfortable with or somebody you’re not comfortable with,” Hooven said. “By the second day, they were hugging me and high-fiving me when I came in the door. It’s like we were already best friends. That’s the kind of relationship you want to form with everybody to be honest with you, not just here, and so to be a part of this has been fantastic.”