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“Because children with autism are children first.” These seven simple words guide every thought, goal, and program offered by Families of Autistic Children of Tidewater (FACT.) serving people with autism in the region. The non-profit organization is all about having fun and enriching lives with everything from teen social clubs and family fun days to sports events and book clubs. There’s also the ICan Bike Camp, which teaches ages eight and up how to ride a two-wheel bicycle, as well as leisure activities like dance, drama, cooking, and camping for children who dislike physical activity.

Nowhere is that “kids first” focus more evident than the organization’s Camp GonnawannaGOagin, a six-week summer program based at the Virginia Beach Friends School. Camps are offered in weeklong sessions that include time at the YMCA’s Camp Grom near Red Wing Golf Club in Virginia Beach, as well as kid-friendly places like the beach, zoo, and aquarium.

Focus on Fun at Camp GonnawannaGOagin

Founded by Families of Autistic Children (FACT)

On a recent hot summer morning, about 40 campers and dozens of volunteer staffers spread out to stations where they could fish, canoe, swim, and play games at Camp Grom. Camp GonnawannaGOagin is FACT’s longest-running program, serving young people with autism for 24 years, according to Tyler Williamson, executive director. The day before, campers enjoyed Ocean Breeze Waterpark, and they planned to end the week with an outing to Apex, a new indoor entertainment complex in Town Center.

While fun is the main focus at camp, there are many secondary goals: gaining confidence, learning new skills, and interacting socially while the youth immerse themselves in community activities, Tyler explained.

“We have had the honor of witnessing so many ‘firsts,’ such as first-time swimming, playing on a team, ordering their own food, attending a dance, and even making a friend,” Tyler said. “The self-assurance gained from so many ‘firsts’ has led to extraordinary paths such as meaningful employment and even college.”

Tyler, 32, who graduated from Washington & Lee University School of Law in 2014, grew up with a younger brother who was diagnosed with autism 28 years ago. “Brian and I have always been very close, and I have a lifetime of experiences with him,” Tyler said of his brother who lives with their parents in Chesapeake.

“When I was 15 years old, my mother helped found Special Olympics in Chesapeake,” he continued. “My best friend and I were the first two student volunteers and coached various sports. This is also when I joined my first nonprofit board as student volunteer representative.”

In college, Tyler worked summers with FACT’s summer camp, which his brother also attended. “I was getting paid to work with a bunch of awesome kids with autism and go into the community and do fun activities like Ocean Breeze, the beach, the zoo, the arcade, and the aquarium,” he said.

Then, law school meant summer internships and no summer camp. When Tyler moved back to the area to practice law, he joined FACT’s board. He became more and more involved with FACT as it evolved and expanded. Before FACT’s 22-year executive director Pam Clendenen decided to retire in late 2020, she had already asked Tyler if he was interested in leaving law for the position. He jumped at the chance.

Volunteers Needed for FACT Summer Camp

And ICan Bike Camp for Kids with Autism

Volunteers are an essential component of the camp program, providing teens a chance to help other kids. Some have siblings or close family members with autism, while some just like helping people with disabilities enjoy life. Younger volunteers are given training and paired with paid adult staffers.

Aiden Crum, 15, is at summer camp for his second year as a volunteer. He sticks close to camper Wyatt Unruh, 14, while they fish and just hang out.

“When you help a kid, you bond with them,” said Aiden, who had a former friend with autism. “But it’s stressful. There’s a lot to worry about. The kids are sensitive to noise and action. I’m still young, so having kids scares me a little bit. But I figure this will better prepare me. You just never know what will happen in life.”

At home, Emma Santiago, 13, loves hanging out and playing video games with her 8-year-old brother Cruz, who is autistic. So, it seemed natural for her to follow him to camp. As a volunteer staffer, she’s paired with a 10-year-old camper.

“I wanted to be here because I just love kids in general,” Emma said. “All kids are different and unique. I’ve had a lot of training at home with my brother, so I know a lot about how to get into their mindset.”

At age 10, Leah Johnson is among the youngest volunteers at camp. Her brother, Taylor, 17, is a camper with autism, and her aunt and uncle, Aly and Justin Hartung, are two of four group leaders who step in and deal with behavioral issues when necessary.

At camp, Leah works with six-year-old Dylan Martinez, who likes basketball. She also works with a non-verbal seven-year-old. “We play in the water and catch minnows,” she said. “I’m here to be their friend.”

FACT is always looking for volunteers like Aiden, Emma, and Leah, especially for summer camp, Tyler said. Many go on to become paid staff, which is what Aiden hopes to do next year.

FACT Offers Year-Round Programs

Seeking Support for Expansion Plans

The organization, which was created by parents and community leaders in 1993, has three full-time staff, which includes Tyler’s position, a program director, and an office manager/bookkeeper. About 250 to 300 attend multiple programs throughout the year, and staffing those events is possible thanks to about 160 volunteers.

Approximately 85 percent of FACT’s funding comes from grants and donations, while the rest comes from program fees paid by families. Discounted program rates are given to military families, families with multiple children with autism, and families that qualify for free or reduced school meals. Its summer camps are the most expensive programming, so FACT annually raises more than $100,000 in donations to keep it affordable for families, who pay $150 to $300 of the $750-$800 it costs per camper per week.

The organization primarily serves ages 6 to 40, and it does not turn away anyone with autism because of behavior issues.

“One of the biggest misconceptions about autism is that all people with autism are alike,” Tyler said. “Autism is a broad-spectrum disorder that affects each person in a different way, and the effects can range vary broadly in severity. It’s a lifelong neurological disorder that affects the social and communication skills of one in 54 children born in the U.S.”

In 2022, FACT plans to offer some year-round programs in cities besides Virginia Beach, so families don’t have to travel so far. There were 3,602 kids with autism in public schools Southside and 931 in Hampton/Newport News schools, for a total of 4,533, according to Tyler. The organization also wants to secure its own building for programs and increase its donor base.

“FACT has meant so much to me and my family over the years,” Tyler said. “I remember when I was applying for law firm jobs, the question of ‘What is Camp GonnawannaGOagin?’ would always come up when discussing my resume. My answer was always the same ‘It was the best job I will ever have.’”

“Back then I didn’t know how lucky I would be to eventually get to one day make it my career,” Tyler said. “Saying yes to Pam was the best decision I ever made, and I couldn’t be happier working with such incredible and dedicated donors, coworkers, volunteers, and families.”

Find out more about FACT’s programs and monetary needs at www.camp4autism.com.

Kathy Van Mullekom

Kathy Van Mullekom is a retired journalist, whose beats included gardening, women’s issues, restaurant trends, and fashion. Formerly a York County resident and master gardener, she now lives in southeastern Virginia Beach, where her leisure hours are spent golfing with husband Ken and exploring parks with her two grandkids, Mattie, 9, and Grady, 7.

Website: https://www.facebook.com/kathyhoganvanmullekom

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