JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - Summer camp should be a fun time for everyone, but for autistic kids here in Mississippi, it was not an option until 2001. That’s when a man named Mark Yeager came up with a non-profit called TEAAM Autism and a camp for kids with special needs.
The lodge at Center Ridge Outpost is empty right now, but in June, it will be filled with kids ready to take on the fun challenges you find at any summer camp. The difference is these kids all have something in common... autism. It is a disorder Dr. Mark Yeager says he’s been interested in since he was a school teacher in the 1980′s. His training is special education and psychology.
Dr. Mark Yeager said, “Many years ago, 20 plus years, families began to tell me that they needed something for their kids with autism to do during the summer. I grew up as a scout and I thought what two better things to put together than a summer camp; fun things to do and, at the same time, give the family, you know, a week off, because taking care of their kids was very intense and they didn’t get a break.”
Yeager’s program became the well-known Kamp Kaleidoscope, giving kid’s with autism a chance, as he put it, to love summer camp the way he did growing up. For 10 years now, the non-profit has been located on property in Smith County once owned by Yeager’s family.
“Oh, we have kids from all over the country that come! Far south as Orlando, as far north as Connecticut, Missouri. We have kids that have come over from Texas," said Yeager.
And what do they take away?
Dr. Mark Yeager said, “I think what families leave with more than anything else is a new outlook that their child can do more than maybe what they thought they could. By coming and doing the things that we do at the camp, and we do everything here that every other summer camp does. It’s just that our people understand autism.”
He continued with a chuckle, “Matter of fact, I have families all the time tell me their kids won’t even unpack. When they come home, they want to stay packed for next summer.”
Volunteers from age 16 and up help make the camp work. Yeager says it’s some of the hardest work they’ll ever do, but....
“One of the unintended consequences of this camp has been that it has truly set the pathway for so many professionals in Mississippi, and other places, to better understand autism and actually go into the field of autism. So it’s kinda neat when you see somebody that 10-years ago was a volunteer and they come to you and say, ‘I just finished medical school and I love working with my kids with autism because now I understand what to do,’” said Yeager.
And that’s what makes Dr. Mark Yeager Mississippi Strong.
It’s not too late to sign up. Just click on www.teaam.org for more information.