The nonprofit's summer camp, designed for kids with autism, has nearly quadrupled in size in one year.
About a dozen children ran inside the Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church classrooms after blowing bubbles outside on Friday, July 27. They sat down for a showing of “The Little Mermaid” movie to cool off from the heat. At a glance, one might think the scene comes from a run-of-the-mill summer camp, but it’s much more than that.
The name of the camp is Vincent’s Clubhouse, and it was founded by Flagler Beach resident Erica Cona so that her son, Vincent, who is on the autism spectrum, could attend a summer camp that meets his needs.
“Part of Vincent’s Clubhouse is that we want to teach the world about our kids — that our kids are not the type of kids that need to be hidden away,” Cona said. “They’re not children that need to be feared; they’re children that have gifts; they’re children that are valuable; they’re children that have benefits to give to society.”
This is only the second year of the camp, but it has grown exponentially. Last year, eights kids who are all on the autism spectrum participated. This year, 30 kids — some on the spectrum and some not — came together for an inclusive summer camp.
“One of the goals is for children who are on the spectrum to be able to model the behaviors of their neurotypical peers, to be able to be exposed to their scenarios and environments that they’re going to be exposed to in everyday life,” Cona said.
While the nonprofit had to charge campers money to participate last year in order to fund the camp, volunteers raised enough donations this year for the camp to be free for the kids. Flagler Schools also donated breakfast and lunch for the campers.
“Part of Vincent’s Clubhouse is that we want to teach the world about our kids — that our kids are not the type of kids that need to be hidden away. They’re not children that need to be feared; they’re children that have gifts; they’re children that are valuable; they’re children that have benefits to give to society.”
- ERICA CONA, Vincent's Clubhouse founder
Cona said the camp had about 25 volunteers, ranging from speech pathologists, to Flagler Schools teachers and students, to parents and community members looking to make this summer special for kids.
Among the volunteers is the camp director, William Bianco, a Rymfire Elementary School ESE teacher who works with kids on the spectrum in kindergarten through second-grade. In another room in the church, Bianco walked around to each camper as they played with building blocks, lounged on bean bag chairs or got creative in the craft station. He gave each one the individual attention they needed.
Bianco has been a teacher for 27 years and has taught at RES for over a decade. But he didn’t always have a passion for ESE classrooms.
He said that in his first classroom ever, one of his students had Asperger's syndrome, which the sixth-grader’s mother informed Bianco of.
“She made it her life’s mission to educate me how to teach her son,” Bianco said. “And I just fell in love with doing that, so when I had the opportunity to take this job, I took it because I just wanted to get back to it.”
During the solar-system-themed week, the campers practiced fine motor skills by drawing constellations, built their own model of the earth’s core and learned social skills at meal and outdoor play time.
The two-week camp, which runs through Aug. 3, was finishing up its first week on July 27. There will be an awards ceremony at the camp’s conclusion to celebrate each camper.