Christ the Good Shepherd Autism Camp

July 2015
By Maria Snider, Atlanta, GA

Over Memorial Day weekend this year, I served as one of the camp counselors at the Christ the Good Shepherd Camp. This camp was sponsored by the Metropolis of Atlanta Philoptochos for Orthodox children in our Metropolis and held at the Diakonia Retreat Center in South Carolina.

At the time of the camp, I was finishing up a Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling, specializing in working with children and adolescents. The other counselors came from various universities, cities and backgrounds, each bringing their own unique experiences to make this camp truly special.

Eight families with children on the Autism Spectrum, attended the camp. I witnessed the excitement in their eyes, as many of these children had never been to a camp that was designed to fit their specific needs. Including volunteers, families, priests and other volunteers, there were over 60 individuals there.

An Autism specialist, Catherine Faherty, trained the counselors and staff members prior to the family arrivals and helped to make the camp Autism-friendly. We wanted the campers to feel accepted and to be able to participate in traditional camp activities. The camp also included a spiritual component with morning and evening prayer services each day conducted by Father Paul Kaplanis from Annunciation Cathedral in Atlanta and Father Panayiotis Papageorgiou from Holy Transfiguration in Marietta, Ga. In addition, Paula Marchman, from the Metropolis of Atlanta Family Services committee, taught about Christ the Good Shepherd and Psalm 23 throughout the weekend.

The weekend began with the families arriving on Friday night. The first night, the children went on a scavenger hunt to get acquainted with the campgrounds, engaged in games and enjoyed a campfire sing-a-long. I watched the children clap happily and gleefully sing the songs.

Saturday began with decorating iconostasios and balancing on the ropes course. The children had a teaching lesson about liturgical articles with Father Paul where he discussed and showed items like the Holy Chalice. Next came canoeing and fishing.

On Sunday morning, the campers and their families attended Orthros and the Divine Liturgy at Diakonia Center chapel. Some of the male campers served as altar boys. I enjoyed hearing the campers both sing hymns and read aloud during the services. Sunday afternoon was filled with more camp activities and on Sunday evening a social was held where everyone listened to music and danced. I could feel the energy and enthusiasm exuding from these children.

On Monday morning, everyone departed for their homes, Not only did the children have a blast at their first camping experience, but the parents appeared relaxed the entire weekend. They had been able to enjoy the campgrounds alone or with each other, while their children were with their counselors.

Many of the children asked if there would be Christ the Good Shepherd camp again next year. My hope is that this camp will continue each year and to serve as a safe and supportive place for these children to try activities that they have never done before. It was a great weekend!