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Camp Avanti teaches lessons for life, says parents, staff

Individually or in pairs, the girls take the stage in their make-believe circus and deftly perform tricks of balance or "magic."

Some are pretend tight-rope walkers, some trapeze artists and one is a magician's assistant who disappears in the depths of a canvas box.

The performers are introduced with fanfare and perform to applause, bowing to acknowledge the cheers of their audience.

It's hard to believe these are specials needs children who deal daily with poor coordination, attention deficits, hyperactivity or sensory processing disorders.

In their schools, says a staff member, "These are the kids that can't deal."

For 20 years, Camp Avanti, a program of Hudson's Special Children Center, has provided a weeklong camp experience and more for St. Croix Valley youngsters.

"This is not a therapy camp. This is a camp with therapy," said Special Children Center Executive Director Julie Spence.

Children ages 6-8 with diagnosed learning disabilities or sensory integrative dysfunctions can attend day camp. The overnight camp is designed for boys and girls, ages 8 to 12.

"It's total submersion in having what you need to be successful," said Nancy Lawton-Shirley, co-founder of Special Children Center and Camp Avanti, which is held each June at YMCA Camp St. Croix. Last week 64 kids, eight cabins of eight, attended Avanti.

"Every single activity has a very specific purpose, but the kids -- from their perspective -- it's just play," said Lawton-Shirley.

Activities include canoeing, sailing, arts and crafts, swimming, hiking, music, horseback riding and WonderLab, a sensory-integration therapy-based activity.

"Sensory integration" describes the brain's ability to take in information from the senses, organize it and respond to it throughout daily life, explains Lawton-Shirley. Some children, she says, have high thresholds of need for certain sensations and may be "constantly on the move, constantly wiggling, jumping and crashing."

Other children struggle with sensory defensiveness, finding that small amounts of sensation activate "protective responses of flight/fright/fight to different sensations," said Lawton-Shirley.

The camp draws staff members from around the country, some so delighted with the camp's successes that they come back year after year.

Dr. Steve Cool, a professor of developmental neurobiology from Oregon, has been working at the camp for nearly two decades and calls himself "a major convert to the Avanti OT (occupational therapy) model."

"It's almost as if you can see those brain cells popping and hooking up," said Cool of watching as children join activities designed to help them develop basic living skills.

"Every once in awhile you get this kid who gives you this M&M moment," he said.

Among those, and certainly not the only one, is a boy named Joe, said Cool.

"Joe was a very low achiever, just low muscle tone, a low achiever," said Cool. At one time, the highest expectation Joe's teachers had for him was that he might finish junior high, but two years ago the young man graduated from college and now has a teaching job.

Cool recalls Joe's description of his first summer at Avanti: "This place was the first time in my life that I felt somebody other than my mother really valued me."

"It was the best experience in his life by far," said Sue Roberts, Hudson, of her son Willie's time at the camp.

Willie is autistic. Roberts said his first week at camp, when he was 10, was the first time he'd been away from home, or from her, overnight.

Families aren't allowed to call or visit their children during the week. But Roberts said Willie did fine and the progress was evident when he came home, immediately went to his room and began unpacking and putting his things away.

"He just loved it. It was just like magic," said his mother.

"Throughout the year (afterward), he would pretend he was going to Camp Avanti," said Roberts. Willie named his stuffed toys after camp counselors and told his family they weren't to speak to him because he was on a campout.

"Autistic children aren't supposed to be able to pretend," said Roberts, who still sounds amazed by her son's progress.

Although Willie usually has trouble verbalizing his feelings, he talked constantly about horseback riding, said Roberts. And he made a friend, a boy from New Richmond, who calls sometimes.

Music is an important part of Avanti and before camp children receive a CD of camp music and songs. Willie treasures that recording, said his mother.

"He constantly listens to those songs and sings them," said Roberts. "I know that's something very soothing and important to him."

Although the weeklong camp costs about $1,200 per child, families are charged $600 for overnight camp and $445 for day camp.

Operating funds are provided by United Way St. Croix Valley, the St. Croix Valley Community Foundation, the Andersen Corporation, the Hugh J. Andersen Foundation, the Minnesota Twins Wives Organization and other donors.