When Chris Gibson saw a need for a summer camp for children with autism, the Belleville educator created one in her own backyard for 10 children. Now four years later, the ADAPT4Autism camp has grown to 40 children and is held at Christ Church in Fairview Heights.
Camper Gabby Stith, 9, and friend Julian Frazure, 11, were busy playing trains in the gymnasium of the church Thursday morning. The friends raced the trains and then decided which was the fastest and awarded first, second and third places.
Gabby seemed partial to a red and green colored train. "Show us your talent Christmas," she exclaimed.
She described the summer day camp as "awesome. It's the best," she said while enjoying a snack of Goldfish crackers. "We can swim. We can have snacks and go to the zoo."
Gabby attends Signal Hill School in Belleville, and Julian will be attending Pontiac Junior High in Fairview Heights in the fall.
After games and activities at the church, the campers and a slew of adult staff members and volunteers traveled over to Gibson's house in west Belleville for more fun including swimming in her in-ground pool, jumping on the trampoline, playing table tennis and a camp favorite -- video games on the Nintendo Wii and Xbox.
Gabby and Julian enjoyed jumping on the trampoline and playing ping pong until it was their group's turn to swim in the pool. The girls had quite a laugh when one of the ping pong balls bounced on the roof of Gibson's house.
Gibson said the camp provides an opportunity for students with autism to interact with each other,
"It really gives children an opportunity to be with like peers in an environment where they feel welcome and safe," she said. "There is such a need for services in this area, but they need to be services that are affordable for all families."
The six-week day camp that meets twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays costs families $250.
The cost is discounted because it's operated by the nonprofit organization ADAPT4Autism, which Gibson and friend Alice Howe created in 2010.
"We want to keep it as cheap as we can for families," Gibson said. "For families that can't afford it, we figure out a way to do it. We really never turn a family away."
The summer camp for children with autism aged 5 to 21 years old is costly as it requires a large number of paid staff members as well as volunteers. On average, 12 paid staff members are on hand plus a handful of volunteers. Some adults work one-on-one with campers and others lead small groups.
The mission of the camp is socialization for the children. "Our goal is socialization -- to give these kids an opportunity to be part of their community in a manner that is appropriate and accepting," Gibson said.
Like many other camps, ADAPT4Autism's summer program includes weekly field trips to popular destinations like the St. Louis Science Center and Tower Grove Park in St. Louis. Donations help cover transportation costs for the outings.
Gibson, 39, of Belleville, who works full time as the autism consultant for Belleville School District 118, said she can't believe how much ADAPT4Autism has accomplished over the last four years.
"We've gone from that backyard experience where I served 10 kids to now serving over 100 families," with programs throughout the year, she said.
The nonprofit serves families from as far away as Carlyle, Brighton and Nashville.
"We really are growing into a regional organization," Gibson said. "We are branching out to more families. So many families are so grateful for the opportunity."
'GODSEND' FOR FAMILIES
Parent Scott Thompson of Brighton said he was thankful to find a summer program for his 12-year-old son Joseph and doesn't mind the hour commute to Fairview Heights.
"We just can't tell you how blessed we were to find it," Scott Thompson said. "They have been terrific with him."
Thompson said Joseph was the only child with autism at his grade school, and he will be attending middle school this fall.
"We were worried about him going to middle school," Thompson said. He contacted the Illinois Center for Autism about summer camps and was put in touch with Gibson.
Joseph is "loving it," Thompson said of the summer day camp. Joseph especially enjoyed the three-day overnight camp component June 26 through 28. "That's all he talks about," Thompson said. "He got to sleep on the top of a bunk bed."
Joseph said it was his first time ever sleeping on a bunk bed. He also liked the field trip to the see the movie "Turbo" at the theater.
Thompson along with his wife Penny has seen improvements in Joseph's social behavior over the last several weeks.
"He does talk quite a bit, but a lot of time it doesn't make any sense," Scott Thompson said. "We noticed a lot more in context talking."
Parent Erika Ferrer of Belleville also is glad her 12-year-old son is in the summer day camp program and is getting to experience a variety of social activities.
Ferrer said her family relocated from California about a year ago and was looking for something for Joshua this summer.
"The summer is really hard at least for my son," she said, because he thrives on structure and schedules.
Joshua sporting a red life vest was splashing in the pool of Gibson's house on Thursday.
Ferrer said she's "amazed" Gibson and her team is able to take such large groups of children with autism on excursions.
"Being a part of what a typical kid would do is huge," Ferrer said. "She's (Gibson) totally been a blessing to me and my family. She's a godsend. I'm just so glad she has this on her heart and I thank God every day she's doing this program."
The summer camp not only benefits Joshua, but Ferrer and her husband Raul's two other children as well.
"It's something so awesome for him," Erika Ferrer said, "and it gives me a chance to be with my other kids."
Brooke Kirchoff's son Jack, 8, has been in ADAPT4Autism's summer camp the last three summers. Kirchoff said she has seen a "huge improvement" with his social skills.
"Jack is extremely social now and initiatives conversations with kiddos," Kirchoff said.
The Kirchoffs live in Swansea and Jack attends Wolf Branch Elementary School.
Jack loves swimming, and Thursday morning, he was in the pool constantly jumping off the diving board and sliding down the slide.
The ADAPT4Autism summer camp not only benefits the children and their families, but the counselors and volunteers as well.
Counselor Derek Bartsch, 24, of Belleville said working at the camp the last three years has been a "humbling experience" for him.
"I've learned so much from these kids." he said. "One thing I've learned is don't take anything for granted. These kids they appreciate everything you do for them. They make me realize what's important in life."
Bartsch said the campers want nothing more than to be your friend. "It makes me feel happy," he said. "These kids would do anything for you."
Bartsch won't be able to work at the camp any longer this summer as he recently graduated from Missouri State University and is going to work at Jimmy John's headquarters.
"I'm going to miss the kids and my relationship with the kids," said Bartsch, who had worked with a small group of boys during the camp. "I'm truly going to miss those kids and seeing them smile every day. They love coming to camp and love everything that Chris (Gibson) does."
Bartsch described Gibson as "one of a kind. She's truly a saint and an angel for these kids," he said.
Counselor Joe Kraus said Gibson helped him when he was younger. "Chris (Gibson) is a very nice person," he said.
Kraus, 19, of Freeburg said he wanted to help other people like him, which is why he works at the camp. Kraus has autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
"I want to make a difference," said Kraus, who works at the camp when it doesn't conflict with his job at Schnucks in Belleville. "I enjoy helping the kids."
'A WAY OF LIFE'
Gibson described ADAPT4Autism as a passion not only for her but her entire family. Husband Joe Cipfl and Gibson's three children and her stepson help with the camp as well.
"It really has become a way of life for us," she said. "We have all been put here for a purpose and this is what we are doing and this is the legacy we leave. I hope it continues to grow and be successful."
Interacting with students with autism, Gibson said, has taught her children empathy, understanding and acceptance.
"I give them a gift for their family, but they give me a gift for my children," she said. "They have allowed me the opportunity to work with their children. My children have the opportunity to learn life skills that are not easily taught."
But Gibson also said, "It's hard. It's physical. It's challenging." Gibson has been bitten and hit before and ended up with bruises and bite marks. "It's not an easy thing to do. I don't like it every day ... but I can't tell these families their child isn't allowed to be a part of it."
So why does she do it? It's simple, Gibson said, for the families. "It's what makes me come back. It's great to see them smile and go out into the community," she said. "It truly is; that's my Mozart; my beautiful music -- to make these families whole."
For her work with ADAPT4Autism, Gibson has been recognized with an award from BASIC -- Belleville Achieves Strength in Character -- and the Center for Racial Harmony.
"It's not about the praise or recognition," she said. "True volunteerism; true giving isn't about what you receive but the actual giving."
For more information about ADAPT4Autism, visit http://www.adapt4autism.org.