Years ago, Honey Leblanc found inspiration in a program for special needs children. Today, she oversees a summer camp devoted exclusively to them.
The camp is the first of its kind on the Coast.
Children with Down syndrome, autism and other special needs are spending this week at Camp Wilkes in Biloxi. There, the kids engage in activities such as arts and crafts, dancing, boating and fishing — many of the things that have become a right of passage for other kids their age.
Leblanc is part of a public service organization called Civitan International. The organization has branches all over the world and Leblanc is part of the Coast Civitan group. She got the idea for the camp from another Civitan group.
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“I thought to myself, ‘How can we get something like this here, for special needs children on the Coast?’ ” Leblanc said.
After she started the camp last year, her goal was to increase attendance this year.
Last year there were 13 kids. This week there are twice as many.
The kids are in superhero groups and they’re responsible for daily tasks. Throughout the day, counselors give groups points for completing errands or for other accomplishments. Much of the activities involve cooperating with one another or working together to complete a common goal.
Each child has a volunteer counselor who stays with them throughout the day. Most of the counselors are area high school students. For most of them, it’s their first time with such an important responsibility.
It can be a difficult task, Leblanc said. But it’s not without its own reward.
“The counselors here learn patience. They learn empathy. It’s a humbling experience,” she said.
Sixteen-year-old Anna Burke is one of the camp counselors. The child she is paired with has difficulty speaking.
But in the time Burke has spent with him, she has picked up visual communication symbols. She said she was blown away when she started to understand what he was saying.
In their element
Leblanc seemed to be in her element Wednesday, surrounded by children running around engaged in activities.
Some were cooling off on one of the giant inflatable slides, where they were doused with cold water. Some were on a pontoon boat exploring Mullet and Big lakes. Others awaited the boat’s return and fished off the pier.
In the kitchen tent, kids followed the lead of a group of counselors who put on costumes and danced to music.
In the arts and crafts tent, Dwayne Dedeaux was among several campers wearing superhero capes they had fashioned in an arts and crafts class.
Dedeaux has Down dyndrome, but his enthusiasm for the camp beamed through an ear-to-ear smile. Dedeaux put down his mask and helped one of the younger children with his own cape.
The real treat at the camp is the talent show, Leblanc said. That’s when the kids reveal a secret talent, which fills them with confidence. It’s a moment where the attention they get is entirely positive. It’s also a moment that continually amazes Leblanc and others.
“The talent these kids have, people would be amazed at some of the things they can do,” Leblanc said.
Some of the kids seem nervous when they first come to the camp. For many of them, it’s not common to leave the comfortable confines of the home. And it’s unusual for many to be around other kids with the same special needs. But the camp changes them, Leblanc said.
“The best feeling is when you have a child come to the camp and they won’t talk to anyone and find a corner to sit in and hide,” Leblanc said. “Then by the end of the day, they’re running around with smiles on their face, hanging out with other kids, doing whatever. Then by the end of camp, you’ll hear them say, ‘I don’t want to leave.’ ”
Like many of the other counselors, Burke said she probably gets more out of the camp than the children.
“When you really get to know these children, and understand they are communicating with you in their own way, it just blows you away,” Burke said. “I get so much out of seeing them smile and expressing themselves.”
Next year, Leblanc said she hopes to see all of the kids return, plus more.
“This is still kind of new. It takes awhile for parents to get comfortable with this kind of thing. But after the first year, some of the parents started asking us if we were going to have it again. I’d like anyone with a special needs child to know about what we do here and maybe next year will be our biggest yet,” she said.
Camp started Tuesday. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind. Thursday night is the talent show. And Friday is packed with a long list of activities.
“I probably won’t sleep at all through this. But my heart is so full,” Leblanc said with tears in her eyes.