Carbondale-based summer camp for autistic children returns stronger
Aside from the 1,000 families evacuated due to the Lake Christine Fire, Ascendigo Adventures Camp also was evacuated from their home base at Colorado Mountain College’s Spring Valley campus early July 5.
Ascendigo Autism Services is a Carbondale-based charitable nonprofit organization that offers summer sports opportunities to children on the autism spectrum. Formerly known as Extreme Sports Camp, Ascendigo also offers year-round outdoor sports activities, support for adults with autism through a comprehensive life and residential program, and behavioral therapies for children.
The organization’s goal is to integrate people with autism into community life recreationally and socially through outdoor recreation, basic life skills, compatible employment in friendly companies and community engagement.
Ascendigo’s summer camp schedule was interrupted on the morning of July 5 when the staff members decided to evacuate to a hotel in Rifle. Though several miles west of the main fire area, CMC received a precautionary evacuation notice at 5 a.m. that day
“They told us it could become mandatory at any minute,” Camp Director Mathew McCabe said. “We knew right away we needed to start planning … to air on the side of caution.”
The camp relocated from the CMC dorms to the LaQuinta Inn in Rifle. McCabe said the Ascendigo staff, who are highly trained in working with individuals with autism, handled the evacuation incredibly well. He said they are trained to manage the stress themselves and take it off the shoulders of the campers.
Some campers struggle with any type of change in schedule and had trouble processing the information of the fire. McCabe said one camper caught on before the others that the staff was planning an evacuation due to the fire, and he began to tuck and roll while yelling, “Fire! Fire!”
McCabe said for this reason, the staff needed to be really clear in their communication with the campers. They created a visual schedule to help explain to the campers what their day would look like once they evacuated.
Camper Ethan Markowitz said, “Out of all the eight years I’ve been coming to this camp, this day was the craziest of all of them. It was insane packing and loading all of our stuff, and watching the vans, trucks and vehicles leaving camp at the same time.”
Ascendigo loaded 22 campers and 45 staff members into vans and relocated to Rifle Gap. The normal schedule for the day had included climbing, whitewater kayaking, wakeboarding and horseback riding. The schedule was modified to allow for outdoor activities at Rifle Gap.
McCabe said campers who were handling the situation well stayed at the lake, while those who were having issues with the change were taken to the LaQuinta Inn to check in and unpack.
Ascendigo was able to return to CMC that Sunday, July 8. When the campers arrived back at the dorms, they were surprised to find that 40 firefighters had been staying in the same building while they were gone. After the campers were able to meet the firefighters and thank them, they made 53 thank-you cards to give to the first responders.
“Ascendigo’s a really unique organization,” McCabe said. “It’s a task for any camp to evacuate because of a fire, especially for a camp for those on the autism spectrum … We were able to pull it off, and the credit for that really goes to our staff.”
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