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Finding fun, familiarity; Circle of Friends camp lets kids be themselves

Ja’Shawn Kelley-Simms brought his face close to the magnifying glass, his nose pushed up against the piece.

On the other side, the word “Unexpected,” written on a piece of paper, looked back at him.

The detective work was the morning activity Wednesday for this group of children who are part of the Circle of Friends Day Camp at the Hormel Historic Home.

Ja’Shawn Kelley-Simms peers through his magnifying glass as part of being a “social detective”’ who uncovers ways to handle social situations at the Circle of Friends Day Camp, at the Hormel Historic Home.

The exercise was part of being a “Social Detective,” a fun way for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder to talk about what can be scary social situations, and working to feel comfortable in those environments.

Social situations can be frightening for autistic children; camps like this one help provide ways to cope and feel safe with the discomfort that comes with new things, transitions or the unknown.

And, it is a p lace “to let them be who they are; meet friends and spend time in a fun environment,” said camp co-leader Lynsey O’Donnell.

Most of the children come from the Austin area, but some have come from as far away as the Twin Cities. Twenty students are attending this year, with an equal number of staff and volunteers. Each “cabin,” or room, with  about four children each, has a team leader, co-leader, and support staff member for each activity, as well as “floaters” who help with projects.

Each morning begins in the cabin, to go over the day’s schedule. Then, each group has an activity which is rotated through the groups during the week, so each group has a new daily activity.

Rachel Kaplan takes kids through a Zones of Regulation exercise, one of the morning activities at the week-long Circle of Friends Day Camp, at the Hormel Historic Home.

Activities include making a snack (to be shared with the entire group), the Zones of Regulation, Social Detective, a book activity and an obstacle course (where kids dress like pirates). After their snack, there are special interest group activities to attend, ranging from music and theater to robotics, construction and science.

After lunch, there is a new place to visit, that helps kids use their skills to calm themselves when they feel uncomfortable in a new place. Some of the activities include attending the YMCA, Oxbow Park, MacPhail Music, bowling and holding a talent show on the last day. All activities intend to broaden a child’s base of experiences so the more familiar a child is with different areas of the community, the more comfortable he or she will be. When comfortable, the children will interact more.

Reasons for the success of the program are many-pronged. Some of the volunteers and staff work in the Austin School District, so children see familiar faces and so, feel safe; it is also “one of the few programs around,” said O’Donnell. The closest place outside of Austin would be the Twin Cities, she said.

Kirby Halvorson gets a little help with his pirate scarf.

“And I think the kids are successful because they get to be who they are,” adding that many students return for the next season of day camp.

There are other camps. The Circle of Friends camp is geared for kindergarten to sixth grade; another called All Access Community Explorations is for the older student segment. The “Just for Me” program is tailored to individual needs and has one-to-one support.

These camps are made possible by individual donors, community businesses, The United Way and the Hormel Foundation.

Next year’s Circle of Friends Day Camp will be held June 25-29. For more information call 1-507-433-4243.

Alicia Ree, left, helps Amythyst Kretler with her pirate scarf at the Circle of Friends Day Camp, at the Hormel Historic Home.