SF EXAMINER: Children with autism learn valuable life skills at Camp Azure in San Francisco

August 10, 2011
By Margaret Baum

Like other parents of autistic children, classical musician Stephen Prutsman faced the challenging task of finding summer activities for his son to participate in. So he came up with the idea of a camp suited to such children.

Prutsman, who approached the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department with the idea, has seen his vision come to fruition at Camp Azure. This summer, the four-week-long Glen Canyon summer camp has accommodated 32 autistic children from ages 6 to 12.

Camp Azure provides an aide for each child and runs side by side with 77-year-old Silver Tree Day Camp. Campers from both Silver Tree and Azure have some activities together, but Azure campers also have alternate activities.

The experiment has been so successful, Recreation Supervisor Lucas Tobin said, that one of the Silver Tree campers said she wanted autism so that she too could play in the so-called sensory tent with campers from Azure.

“We are not doing this to just ‘help’ the kids,” Tobin said. “We want to give them the same summer experience as other kids have.”

Recreation therapist Vicky Pitner, who moved from Tennessee to manage Camp Azure, said children usually follow morning sensory activity such as playing with water or shaving cream with a morning hike, and spend the rest of the afternoon playing games, doing yoga or music therapy.

“The whole philosophy is that it teaches basic life skills,” Pitner said. “These kids don’t always get to experience true leisure; it’s unique for the kids on the spectrum to play with each other.”

For each child who is a client of The Golden Gate Regional Center, Tobin said, one week of care is provided free of charge.

Between a benefit concert held by Prutsman and donations from individuals and organizations such as CVS, New Hall and the Department of Children, Youth and Families, about $80,000 was raised to run the camp.

But Camp Azure, which ends for the summer on Friday, is only the first step for Prutsman. He plans to travel to New York City to look into starting a local charter school for autistic kids. He said San Francisco doesn’t have such a school, although some cities do.

“I have a personal vested interest in this,” Prutsman said. “When you have a child with autism, you can’t just drop them off, you have to watch them every second — you can’t work. This camp has given these parents an extra 2,400 productive hours.”

The camp has been so successful this year that Recreation and Park hopes to run it again next year.

“We definitely want to keep this going,” Tobin said.

The department plans to hold Azure Playday, a once-a-month opportunity for families to drop off their autistic children to stay for the day. The idea is that it would bridge the gap between summers and keep the families involved, Tobin said.

“We are committed to ensuring recreation activities for all of San Francisco’s children,” said Rec and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg. “It’s very meaningful to be able to create this.”

Read more at the San Francisco Examiner: http://www.sfexaminer.com/local/2011/08/autistic-children-learn-valuable-life-skills-camp#ixzz1Uf9HOvBA