Like many other summer camps, Oregon’s Camp Odakoda features a swimming hole, a fire pit, and canoes. The camp’s culture, however, is unique.
“Here, no one judges you, not even a tiny bit,” explains Zander Cloud, a 16-year-old camper. “There can be people who you have the same common interests with, and it just makes you feel connected in some way, and more involved than you would sometimes do in school.”
Zander is one of 85 young adults affected by autism spectrum disorder who gathered at Camp Odakoda for a week of fun and fellowship. The camp is the only facility in the Pacific Northwest which caters specifically to youth on the autism spectrum.
Misti and Ian Moxley founded the camp in 2010 to provide more opportunities for their autistic son. “That’s what we were looking for is–where can we take our son where he can find friends that really get him, and he can understand that maybe he’s different, but he’s not less important, that he’s not less of a person, that he just has to find his people,” Misti told KATU news.
Camp Odakoda staff members work to connect campers who have similar interests. Two kids who both enjoy fishing, for example, may share a room.
The camp strives to create a stress-free environment for all youth by maintaining a high counselor-to-camper ratio, and by eliminating surprises from the daily schedule. Camp staff also enforce a no-tolerance policy with regard to teasing.
“They do not tolerate bullies at all here, so you can be whoever you want to be,” explains 14-year-old Alex Witzens. “It’s really important, ’cause I’ve been bullied a lot and it’s nice to go somewhere, for one week you won’t be bullied and you can just let loose, have fun and be yourself.”
Staff member Jonathan Chase understands the challenges faced by young adults such as Alex. Jonathan himself was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 14. “We didn’t have camps like this when I was growing up,” he told KATU. “When I became an adult, I looked back and I thought how different it would’ve been if there was somebody there who understood me, who is standing up for people who are different.”
Now, Jonathan helps teens enjoy the relationships he lacked as a child. Youth at Camp Odakoda look up to Jonathan, who has successfully navigated the transition to adulthood, and lives independently. Zander and Alex plan to follow in his footsteps by becoming camp counselors after graduation: “you get to help people and you can be really friendly,” Zander explains.
Jonathan sums up his message to youth affected by autism. “I’m here as a reminder for the kids and for the adults that where we start isn’t where we finish,” he says. “Autism isn’t a ceiling, it’s just a hurdle.”