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Here I Am

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Sorcha Hyland
Lara Mann
Deb Griswold
Elizabeth Kozleski

By Kelly Lee, M.S.Ed.

With great thanks to my dear Grandmother Nellie Mae Tebbenkamp, for her influence.

I always wanted to be an educator. Since a very little girl, I played school like no other—mostly with imaginary friends and stuffed animals (all very well behaved)—and dreamt of the day I’d become “Miss Tebbenkamp.” Twenty-four years have passed since the spark ignited in my heart to work in special education.

It was 1991 and I was a junior in high school. I had an amazing opportunity to spend a portion of my school day at a local elementary school to further prepare myself for the field of education—an opportunity I am quite grateful for. The sponsor asked if I’d be willing to assist in a special education classroom and although I knew little of what to expect, I took the leap. I swiftly fell in love with the students and with the profession and entered my undergraduate degree in the field.

I began my adventure as an educator in 1996 and although I wasn’t fully prepared (how can one truly be?), I rocked it, and I felt at home in my new profession. I found myself weaving positive social and emotional skills into a lot of my academic lessons—a bit “out of the box” at the time. When teaching math, for example, I found a way to weave in self-esteem, self-advocacy, sharing, problem solving, and many other of the millions of social, emotional, and behavioral strategies youth foundationally need. I believed in teaching social skills in the same fashion one would teach academic skills—directly, with practice opportunities, and with positive feedback.

Did I mention I was “rocking it?” Well…I was until I met Justin, my first student with Asperger syndrome in 1997 shortly after the diagnosis was added to the DSM-IV. I adored him yet I quickly realized that I needed more tools in my toolbox to meet his unique needs. This is where the University of Kansas entered my life. Thanks to the outstanding leadership at KU and a fabulous grant that was available, I acquired a graduate degree with an emphasis in autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Within my graduate studies, I became involved in Camp Determination as a volunteer, Director, then volunteer again (getting married and having children will cause one to step back from commitments a bit). Camp Determination provided an overnight camp experience for youth with ASD across all fifty states and provided me an opportunity to see how powerful a comfortable, natural, accepting atmosphere can be to encourage social development and increased independence and self-esteem. It also gave me the chance to see some of the numerous challenges parents face. My eyes were opened to new ways to educate and support children and also to encourage, love, include and give abundant grace to parents.

My graduate studies ignited an even stronger passion—one to specifically serve and advocate for individuals on the autism spectrum. My studies were also coupled with an unmatched experience as a respite care provider for a teenager with autism. We focused on every day experiences—from greeting Mom in a friendly, non self-focused manner when she walked through the door after a tiring day of work to budgeting and accessing the community. Through our shared experiences, he had a huge impact on me—professionally and personally. I was honored when he attended my small wedding (wearing his treasured Power Ranger gloves) and even more touched when he called me in the hospital as I held my first-born and he expressed, “I knew you’d be proud that I used the telephone book.” I often wonder if he and his family know how remarkably and positively he impacted me. Perhaps I’ll share that this Saturday as I treat him to lunch in honor of his thirtieth birthday.

Post graduate school, I organized and facilitated community-based social competency groups, returned to the classroom for a while then became an Autism Specialist at a local school district. In that role, I assisted with program development, trained staff members, served as a resource for parents, modeled strategies, and assisted with the development of individualized program supports. My love for providing support and solid programming to individuals with autism deepened. I thought for certain I would always enter a school and call it my “home.”

That grounded certainty was shaken in 2006. I received a call from a parent of one of my previous campers that the nonprofit that hosted Camp Determination would be closing its doors due to lack of funding. The family was crushed, fearing that the key positive experience her son had through the year, the one he counted down to, was no longer available. She begged that I consider taking action to keep an overnight camp for youth with ASD available in Kansas City. I was a new mom, loved my part time gig as an Autism Specialist and although my heart was broken for the loss of Camp Determination, I hung up the phone with tears in my eyes and a deep desire to help, yet also had absolute resistance to take action.

My resistance softened after thinking it through, receiving additional phone calls, and having the support of my friend and colleague, Dr. Kaye Otten. Together, we listened to prior campers and parents say that no one could “take the reigns” and bring a camp to life without knowing the numerous details involved in overseeing the lofty task. Together, we thought about the lives changed through the camp, reflected on our own childhood summer camp experiences, and decided we couldn’t sit it out. Hand in hand, we created By-Laws, developed a Board of Directors, and cofounded a nonprofit, Camp Encourage. Never would I have imagined that we could have jumped in and taken care of all of the ground-up details, but we did. Faith, hope, and a strong belief in the power of something very good will do that to you. And, never would I have imagined that I would step away from working in the school environment. Yet, I did and HERE I AM. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

Camp Encourage was founded in 2007 with a mission to encourage social growth, independence, and self-esteem in youth with autism spectrum disorder through a quality, overnight camp experience located in the greater Kansas City area.” Since then, our small grassroots nonprofit has provided over 450 slots to campers in Kansas and Missouri, has positively impacted the peer model campers and volunteers in ways we could not have imagined, and has ever-so-proudly raised and distributed more than $350,000 in scholarship funds to campers that would not otherwise have been able to attend.

We strive to provide a place where each camper: feels proud about who he or she is, can shine by exhibiting his or her talents, is able to share positive experiences with others with similar interests and abilities, can connect and keep in touch with new friends, and knows that there is a place where judgments and teasing are absent.

Key components that make Camp Encourage unique include but are not limited to:

  • a whopping amount of love and acceptance
  • the teaching of social and emotional competency
  • sensory supports
  • visual strategies
  • positive behavioral supports
  • the involvement of undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students
  • the inclusion of peer models
  • adventure based programming (ropes course and/or ziplining)
  • traditional camp activities such as horseback riding, archery, fishing, swimming, hayride, art activities, and singing by the campfire
  • and activities tailored around the individual campers’ interests (past offerings have included lego construction, music therapy, theater, chess, yoga, and more).

Further, Camp Encourage provides parents, siblings and other family members with much needed respite for four days and three nights.

If you would like to gather more details about this stellar nonprofit in our community, visit our website at campencourage.org or contact me directly at klee@campencourage.org. Open enrollment is currently underway through February 22nd for potential campers with ASD between the ages of eight and 18. Due to interest, a lottery will take place shortly after that date. Further, applications for PEER MODEL CAMPERS and VOLUNTEERS can be found on our website and are encouraged to be submitted no later than April 1st.

Join the goodness this summer! I have a feeling that once you do, you’ll say, “HERE I AM” while surrounded by the magic that is Camp Encourage for years and years.

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Kelly (Tebbenkamp) Lee received an undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia in Learning Disabilities, Behavioral Disorders, and Cognitive Impairments (K through 12). At the University of Kansas, she obtained a master degree in Special Education with an emphasis in autism. Prior to her present role at Camp Encourage, Kelly served as an Autism Specialist for six years, taught in the special education setting for seven years supporting students with various exceptionalities in the elementary and high school settings, designed and facilitated community-based social development groups for children ages twelve through eighteen, worked as a counselor at a local outdoor and diversity education camp through two summers, and served active roles for seven years of Camp Determination as a volunteer, counselor, and Director. She resides in the midtown area of Kansas City with her husband and two daughters.

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