Jane Rowley, left, begins one of the activities during the Prayerful Hands Garden Summer Camp at St. John Neumann Parish, Powhatan, during the week of June 24. Also pictured are Henry Boyer, DJ Kennedy, Robin Swan, Diana McDaniel, Martha O’Donnell, Grace Fitts, Elizabeth Weimere, and Charlie Weimere. (Photo/Kristen L. Byrd)

Kristen L. Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Only a few years ago, Charlie was non-verbal, communicating with his parents by holding up cards. If he was sad, he held up a card with a frowning face. If he needed to use the bathroom, he held up a card with a toilet. 

For the first four years of his life, he didn’t say a word. After he joined an integrated kindergarten class that welcomed children with special needs, he slowly became more communicative. At 4-and-a-half, he started speaking.

“When he finally said ‘mama,’ I was so happy that I cried for a week,” said his mother, Svetlana Weimere. In first grade, Charlie started speaking three-word sentences. Now, as a rising third-grader, he talks all the time. 

The Weimeres are members of St. John Neumann Parish, Powhatan, where Charlie participated in the parish’s first summer camp for children on the autism spectrum. 

‘Guided by Holy Spirit’

The camp, which was open to children of all faiths, offered children the opportunity to participate in events tailored to their needs and gave them the chance to make friends with others on the spectrum without the prohibitive cost parents often face. The idea started with the church’s pastor, Father Walter Lewis. 

“I knew of families with children on the spectrum, and from years of working with children in first sacrament preparation, I knew that there were many more folks out there who deal with special needs children,” said Father Lewis, pastor of St. John Neumann for six years. “Knowing the incredible expense for parents with special needs kids and that these children were frequently excluded from summer camp experiences caused me to propose it.”

Father Walter Lewis, pastor of St. John Neumann, Powhatan, talks about the koi pond with campers Grace Fitts and Charlie Weimere during the Prayerful Hands Garden Summer Camp at the parish during the week of June 24. (Photo/Kristen L. Byrd)

According to the priest, due to sponsorships and fundraising, including support from the parish’s Bakers’ Guild, the five participants were able to attend the camp without cost. 

Once the idea was proposed, the parish community embraced the concept, with dozens of special education teachers, artists, nurses and parents offering their time and expertise. Within a few months, volunteers were organized, supplies were donated, activities were planned, the schedule was set and the camp was ready. 

“It was an almost electric connection, and we were guided by the Holy Spirit. Ideas meshed, responsibilities were assumed and we started searching for campers,” recounted Father Lewis. 

The camp was named the Prayerful Hands Garden Summer Camp after the parish’s lush and expansive garden, which the planning committee agreed should be central to the camp.

The Prayerful Hands Garden features a multitude of flowers, plants, fruits, vegetables and a koi pond and is used to grow crops that the parish donates to various charities. Some produce is sold to help fund church activities, such as the camp. 

Being part of community

During the week, campers participated in hands-on activities that helped them think and problem-solve in innovative ways. They practiced yoga to help them feel centered and focused, and there was a quiet space available for campers who wanted alone time. Children adorned with butterfly wings and Batman or Wonder Woman gloves planted flowers, went on treasure hunts, helped Father Lewis feed the fish and ate food straight from the garden. 

Katie Boyer, whose 10-year-old son Henry is on the spectrum, explained why gardening is beneficial for children with autism.

“Gardening in general is a sensory experience, and most children on the autism spectrum have heightened senses. There were many applications in the garden that would serve not only as fun for the children, but also a therapeutic experience,” she said. 

Boyer spoke about how her family had struggled to find a camp suitable for Henry, as it is a “challenge” for him to transition and get used to new people and surroundings.

“It is often not worth us spending money on camp or other activities, as we are taking a risk that he will refuse to go, or we will have to force him to go when he is uncomfortable, or we will have to go with him,” she said. “Because of his behavior challenges, we stopped signing him up for any type of afterschool activity, sports team or camp.”

Boyer said Henry was reluctant to come to the Prayerful Hands Garden Summer Camp, but that he ended up loving it, enjoying being one of the oldest campers and helping the younger ones. It also gave him the opportunity to learn to communicate with non-verbal campers and made him see that he is part of a community of children with autism. 

“He knows he is on the autism spectrum, and it’s something that he struggles with, oftentimes saying he wishes this was not so,” Boyer said. “I think the camp helped him to feel special and to see that he is not alone in his struggles.”

Charlie Weimere walks across the “sensory rug” during the Prayerful Hands Garden Summer Camp at St. John Neumann, Powhatan. The rug allows children with autism to experience different sensations in a non-threatening manner. (Photo/Kristen L. Byrd)

Art integral part of camp

Karyn Hill and her husband Mike are educators who recently moved to Powhatan. They have family connections to autism as well as experience managing summer camps and working in community gardens. They used their professional and personal knowledge to help create the camp’s garden-centered activities.

“For students with autism,” Karyn said, “the garden allows them to work on skills such as fine motor skills (digging, watering, planting), social skills (cooperating, collaborating), and communication skills (following directions, asking questions, moving around the garden).” 

One activity they implemented was a sensory rug. This “rug” is a long, shallow rectangular box which sat among flowers, butterflies and a bubble machine. The box was divided into separate sections, each with a different texture that could be found in the garden – one section had sand, one had mulch, another had small rocks, etc. The children touched or walked across the box, if they were comfortable doing so, feeling the different textures with their feet and hands. 

“Many children with autism have problems with sensory input,” Hill explained. “The rug allows students to sense different sensations: squishy, soft, hard, gritty, rough, cold, hot. The sensory input allows students to practice the sensations in a non-threatening manner. Some children are sensitive to rain or the points on grass for example, everyday sensations that we take for granted.”

The gardening theme was evident in participants’ art projects. They made birdhouses, created sand landscapes, painted bricks and made planters out of coffee cans. Jane Rowley, who taught elementary and high school art for 33 years, volunteered to be the camp’s art teacher. 

“It is important that art is an integral part of the camp because it offers children different activities in order to keep their attention focused. They will also have a tangible product that they can bring home to show their families,” she said. 

Recognize gifts

 Judy Lewis, another camp volunteer, has been a special education teacher for more than two decades. She said that the rate of students with autism has increased significantly over the past 20 years. Where students on the spectrum used to be kept in separate classrooms and taught by separate teachers, she said more schools are now using collaborative or integrated classrooms where children with autism are taught in the same classrooms as other students and are taught by both general and special education teachers. 

“Students today are much more accepting of peers with differences because they have been in the same classes and schools for years, from preschool onward. In school, learning occurs not only in the classroom, but throughout the school setting,” she said. 

The success of the first Prayerful Hands Garden Summer Camp already has volunteers of St. John Neumann looking forward to next year. They plan to promote camp early to attract more campers from Powhatan and beyond.

Father Lewis hopes that one outcome of the camp will be an “increased awareness of how precious these little ones are and how loving care opens the doors to their world,” a sentiment that is shared among the parents, teachers and volunteers who work toward more inclusive and greater opportunities for autistic children.

“I hope the camp will continue to grow, perhaps in number, but more importantly to provide the students with autism an opportunity to learn and grow in a loving environment,” said Judy Lewis. “It is my hope that we will work to recognize the gifts and talents students with autism bring the greater community instead of the challenges they present.”

Editor’s note: For further information about next year’s Prayerful Hands Garden Summer Camp, contact Father Lewis at FrWalterLewis@gmail.com

What is autism?

According to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 59 children in the United States is on the autism spectrum. Like it sounds, a spectrum disorder means it presents itself in varying degrees depending on the person. 

Some people with autism lead largely “normal” lives – they can work and live independently, while others cannot. Many people on the spectrum have trouble developing social skills. Some may not make eye contact while others cannot speak at all. 

Some students with autism do very well in school, while others feel overwhelmed and have trouble concentrating. Many are devoted to set routines, habits and actions. 

According to Autism Speaks (www.autismspeaks.org), “Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. 

“Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. The ways in which people with autism learn, think and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged. Some people with ASD may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently.

“Several factors may influence the development of autism, and it is often accompanied by sensory sensitivities and medical issues such as gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures or sleep disorders, as well as mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression and attention issues.”

– Kristen L. Byrd

‘Promote acceptance, encounter,’ pope says

On Nov. 22, 2014, Pope Francis spoke to an international conference whose theme was “The Person with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Animating Hope.” The following is taken from the pope’s presentation. 

“Such disorders constitute a fragility that affects numerous children and, consequently, their families. They represent an area that directly appeals to the governments and institutions, without of course forgetting the responsibility of Christian communities.

“Everyone should be committed to promoting acceptance, encounter and solidarity through concrete support and by encouraging renewed hope, thereby contributing to overcome the isolation and, in many cases, the stigma to which people with autism spectrum disorders are also subjected, and often their families too.

“This must not be an anonymous or impersonal accompaniment, but one of listening to the profound needs that arise from the depths of a pathology which, all too often, is difficult to diagnose, but — especially for the family — must be accepted without shame or withdrawal into solitude. It is a cross.

“In the realm of assistance to people affected by autism spectrum disorders, it would be beneficial to create a regional network of support and services which are comprehensive and accessible. 

“In addition to parents, these should also involve grandparents, friends, therapists, educators and pastoral workers. These figures can help families overcome the feelings, which can sometimes arise, of inadequacy, helplessness and frustration.

“For this reason, I thank the families, parish groups and various associations represented here today and from whom we heard these moving and meaningful testimonies, for the work they carry out every day. I extend to all of them my personal gratitude and that of the whole Church.

“Additionally, I would like to encourage the challenging work of the academics and researchers, so that they may discover, as soon as possible, treatments and instruments of support and aid in order to heal and, above all, to prevent the onset of these disorders. All of this while paying due attention to patients’ rights, their needs and their potential, always safeguarding the dignity of every person.”