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Summer Camp

The children, all boys under the age of 6, crowd into the cardboard tiki hut or scoop rice into a funnel. Toy airplanes waited the young pilots and their make believe flight plans. Books with bright letters and basic lessons lie on a table ready to provide a calm retreat.

The children are rambunctious and eager to get their first day of camp started.

“He loves to be here,” said Donna Vallelunga. She watches her son Cameron, 5, through a one-way window as he plays. He keeps a certain amount of distance between himself and the others. Group play is something Vallelunga has emphasized as Cameron enters kindergarten at Naval Elementary next month.

Interacting with other children isn’t easy for these campers who have been diagnosed as having varying degrees of autism.

For the past eight years, Holly Ridge Center has offered a Summer Fun Camp for autistic children. The camp, which began this week, provides a regimented, familiar environment where the children can have fun.

“It gives the child an opportunity in a safe place to just play. The idea is for them to just have fun,” said paraeducator Helen Tillson.

According to Tillson, children with autism are inadvertently set up to fail in typical summer camps because the pressure to be social overwhelms them. This pressure can cause children to isolate themselves or to behave violently.

“When there’s no structure their world is very very chaotic,” Tillson said.

Stations such as one for reading are in the same place with the same items each day.

Tillson, who has been with Holly Ridge for the past 17 years and the other paraeducators use their extensive, specialized training to create a semi-structured, camp setting. She watches the children as they climb, slide and romp on the outdoor playground.

This year’s camp has a luau theme with brightly colored flowers and the aforementioned hut.

Children can practice communication and improve their motor skills. The Marine Science Center of Poulsbo is scheduled to bring a collection of sea creatures to the children.

When Jessica Camp, of Port Orchard, pulled up to Holly Ridge Tuesday morning, Jacob, 4, was “ready to go.” Jacob is classified as being a high-functioning autistic, which means he has trouble communicating.

“He’s doing a lot better now,” Camp said.

Susan Chen of Central Kitsap watched her son Drake, 4. This is his first time at the Summer Fun Camp. She brought him there to “have fun, to have interaction with the other kids.”

This is Cameron’s third year at the camp. To keep the consistency and routine Vallelunga organized a play group for her son. The group meets at the Bremerton Community Center indoor playground.

“There’s a difference every time I do a group. He can expand on his thoughts a little more each time,” she said.

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