More than anything, Matthew wanted a friend.

The transition from elementary school to middle school can be tough on any kid, but for Matthew, a child with autism, finding friends and fitting in was even more difficult.

“His mother would tell me that they felt like they’d lost him,” said Kristy White said, chief development officer of the Autism Society of North Carolina. “She couldn’t understand why he was unable to make a friend in middle school.”

Like many parents before her, Matthew’s mother turned to summer camp for help with her child. She signed him up for Camp Royall, a summer camp for children with autism led by the Autism Society of North Carolina. And like many kids before him, Matthew’s camp experience changed his life. Summer camp helps students build confidence and social skills and discover what they love to learn outside of school.

Kathleen Evans knew her son Matthew was having a life-changing experience at Camp Royall when she called to check in on him. Matthew told his mom that he’d have to call his parents back. He needed to get back to his friends.

“After his week at Camp Royall, Matthew had not one, but two best buddies,” Evans said. “Camp Royall is heaven on Earth for a kid who feels like they never fit in.”

In middle school, many kids already had established friend groups which made it difficult for Matthew to fit in and find a friend. At Camp Royall, he was surrounded by kids just like him. “My husband and I got our son back,” Evans said.

The Autism Society of North Carolina will again offer Camp Royall for the summer of 2017. “We work with campers to develop many of the skills necessary for academic success,” White said. “That includes anything from cooperation, self-control, confidence, independence, curiosity, empathy and communication — all skills important in both their daily life as well as in an academic setting.”

Camp Royall is just one of many Triangle camps providing a connector to the classroom, and working to prevent summer slide for all students at-risk.

Summer slide

Summer slide, or summer learning loss, is when students lose knowledge from the previous academic year, causing teachers to spend precious time each August reviewing. And because research shows that low-income families and families who have differently abled students have less access to stimulating and appropriate summer camp, summer can widen the achievement gap schools work so hard to close.

Many parents gear up for summer camp sign-up season like a high school senior choosing a college: Spreadsheets, deadlines, deposit dates and prices, which camps provide lunch or extended day pickup. All for the chance to make sure their kids get the most stimulating summer possible.

But specifically for low-income parents, that world can be completely out of reach — a week of overnight camp can cost more $1000, and full-day day camp often costs more than $200 per week. For families with multiple children, the price tag adds up.

“Summer programs that have an academic component are really important for all kids, but they’re especially important for kids who attend low-performing schools or are struggling academically themselves,” said Lauren Stephenson, development manager at East Durham Children’s Initiative. “If you have a kid who’s not reading on grade-level or is slightly behind, and then they experience summer learning loss — well, now they’re even further behind, which is detrimental.”

Parents who don’t have expertise in child development or learning may not understand the importance of keeping kids engaged through the summer, said Stephenson, from the East Durham Children’s Initiative. After all, kids spend the whole school year focused on reading and math, tests and all.

“Many view the summertime as important downtime for kids when it can also be a tremendous opportunity for to keep growing and keep learning,” Stephenson said.

EDCI STEAM Summer Camp

Matthew’s experience shows that summer camp does more than prevent students from falling behind academically – it helps students learn how to navigate social situations. And at Durham’s EDCI STEAM summer camps, students can find their passion outside the classroom setting.

Stephenson remembers one student who discovered a love of building during the LEGO week camp.

She built a house using LEGOS and that got her thinking about her future, Stephenson said. “I’m going to be an architect one day,” she told her counselors.

“A two-week program over the summer had got her thinking about her future and what she wants to do,” Stephenson said. “I thought that was just awesome.”

For years, the EDCI has operated summer camps with the goal of preventing summer learning loss and making sure kids arrive back at school prepared. STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math.

“We are really excited about this camp because it’s going to be a great way to not just prevent learning loss, but hopefully help kids catch up a little bit so they’re pretty prepared in the Fall,” Stephenson said. “And hopefully they’ll have a great time while they do it.”

The Foundation believes that to combat summer learning loss, all children can benefit from a camp experience; especially those who may otherwise be unable to attend due to financial constraints, different abilities, or family situations. Our 2017 Send A Kid To Camp™ program grants scholarships to 16 local camps as part of Our Focus: Youth Literacy.