CHARLOTTE – A volunteer at the 19th annual Camp SOAR said June 12 it takes a village to run the Special Olympics Athletic Retreat at the Levine Jewish Community Center.
Camp SOAR offers Special Olympics athletes a place to attend summer camp. They participate in a variety of sports, as well as take part in such activities as dancing, bingo, music, arts and crafts.
The free camp was held June 10 to 14 and broken into two sessions for campers 12 to 25 and campers 26 and older. Several of the campers are in their 60s.
About 400 volunteers are needed to pull off the week-long event. Volunteers come from local schools, churches and businesses. But a whopping 106 of those volunteers are either current or former Charlotte Catholic High School students. Many of the volunteers at the camp are buddies, in which they are paired with campers.
Camp SOAR director Bob Bowler thought having high school students as volunteers would be good for the camp. He approached schools like Charlotte Catholic with his idea of a buddy system as the camp grew from several dozen campers to this year’s total of over 350 campers.
“I see so much bonding, and barriers are dropped,” Bowler said. “They realize that they are making a difference in the campers’ lives, but it is also making a difference in their own lives. It’s great to see the acceptance and the respectability and how they bring everybody together.”
Bowler said the camp attracts several volunteers who want to become special education teachers or occupational therapists.
Maria Yarussi, of Waxhaw, is one such volunteer.
Yarussi, a recent Charlotte Catholic graduate, will head to Mars Hill University in the fall to major in occupational therapy, as well as play soccer and run track. She just finished her second year as a volunteer at Camp SOAR.
“The campers just love to be here, and they love to work together and find new friends,” Yarussi said. “There is so much happiness. They always have smiles on their faces, and the volunteers always have smiles on their faces.’’
Yarussi got involved with Camp SOAR thanks to Al Tinson, a substitute teacher at Catholic. Tinson also serves as media relations coordinator for Camp SOAR.
“I talk about Camp SOAR all year long,” Tinson said.
Yarussi said she sees herself volunteering at Camp SOAR for many summers to come. She’s been interested in special education since the seventh grade. Her best friend has autism.
Grace Flanagan, a 2010 graduate of Myers Park High School, has been volunteering at Camp SOAR for 15 years. Flanagan said Camp SOAR changed her life. She is a special education teacher at Ballentine Elementary in Fuquay-Varina.
“I take the week off from teaching and come down to camp,” Flanagan said. “I came (the first time) purely just to check some boxes to get some service hours. I was here 10 minutes that first year and I was hooked. I went to school and got my undergraduate degree and my master’s degree in special education. I can truly say camp changed my life and gave me a purpose.’’
Want to know more?
Visit www.sonc.net to learn more about Camp SOAR and other programs offered by Special Olympics North Carolina. There are also opportunities to become a volunteer and coach, as well as to donate to the cause.