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Summer camp for special needs kids gives hope


South LA’s St. Agnes Catholic Church School

According to an article released by entitled Special Education Enrollment, as of 2020, Black children make up 7.5% of special needs children. Special needs is a difficult topic and challenge faced across all communities nationally. However, it can be especially challenging in an already underserved community, such as South Los Angeles. Luckily, for those parents and families struggling, organizations such as Special Needs Network are defying the odds against the lack of resources in the Black and Brown special needs community.

The Special Needs Network hosts a yearly summer camp called JPAC (i.e. Joe Patton Academy Camp). JPAC hosted their 14th Annual End-of-Camp Showcase on Aug. 4 from 3-4 pm at St. Agnes Catholic School which is located at 1428 W Adams Blvd. The Showcase included performances by campers, including improv, dance, and singing. Mcdonald’s Happy Meals were provided to all attendees, to keep everyone in happy spirits. The showcase demonstrated the talents and brilliance of all participants and the progress they made while attending the camp.

The Special Needs Network is one of the nation’s leading disability, children’s health, and social justice non-profit grassroots organizations. Special Needs Network addresses and offers resources with regard to autism as well as other developmental disabilities. SNN was founded by Areva Martin; mother, author, and civil-rights attorney who struggled to find adequate resources for her own son, Marty who was diagnosed at the age of 2. Her response was a unique one in that she embarked upon a journey to assist those affected.  The Special Needs Network is located at 4401 Crenshaw Blvd. in Los Angeles.

“We see voids, we see where there’s a gap in the system, then we step in and we solve the problem,” Martin said. “I was inspired to create a Special Needs Network because of my own son. The Special Needs Network grew out of my own frustration. We conducted a survey of Black and Brown families asking them what their experiences had been and found that there were a lot of similarities. One was that there wasn’t any organization that was really catering to our needs.”

The Special Needs Network offers services such as ABA services, parent education and training, social skills, and assessment and intervention. Additionally, SNN offers resource assistance with Adult Transitioning, Government/Social Services, Legal/Advocacy, recreation, education, employment programs, and housing.

JPAC provides a welcoming environment for special needs children and their siblings. JPAC is led by a team of counselors; consisting of former campers and also counselors with special needs or on the Autism Spectrum, special education teachers, and enrichment teachers. JPAC aims to offer educational, recreational, positive developments and progression for all campers during their camp experience. Martin's dreams include hosting more JPAC camps across multiple locations, she suggests that people educate themselves on Autism and misconceptions of the condition.

On average, most Black children are diagnosed three years later due to lack of resources or services which prohibits their ability to receive adequate, behavior intervention and treatment. Other barriers include lack and cost of services, transportation, poverty, food insecurity, and employment opportunities.

Martin says, “I think it’s important that Black families recognize that there is a racial gap in terms of diagnosis and access to services. There are documented studies and surveys which establish that oftentimes Black families face additional barriers because of anti-blackness and systemic racism.”

Camp counselor and current LMU student Drew Cox is on the Autism Spectrum himself and said of his experience, “I was not a camper myself, however, I was a youth camp counselor last year. One memorable moment that I would like to share is during the showcase, I was on stage, singing an original song written by one of the campers, Malcolm, called "Power" and he has such an unusual voice and a big, bright personality. He sang so enthusiastically that it really cracked me up! The joy on his face made me smile!”

Cox benefited greatly from the experience and even overcame obstacles throughout his time as a counselor stating, “It was a very interactive experience for me. I noticed that I had to communicate more than what I’m accustomed to; whether it meant checking in with the administrative team, chatting with my peers, co-camp counselors, or engaging in activities with the campers.”

Cox added, “I would like the public to know that individuals diagnosed with Autism usually have unique talents, skills, worldviews and different ways of communicating their ideas.”

JPAC mother and Autism Advocate, Traci Evansdixon shared her personal experience with the lack of resources available upon her son's diagnosis and her hesitation to attend church due to concerns regarding how her son’s behavior may be perceived. Although this was a difficult circumstance to navigate, Evansdixon turned her trial into a true testimony by forming a support group at the church for other patrons and families experiencing special needs challenges. Her advice to parents struggling, “Gather a tribe of moms dealing with Autism and together you can accomplish anything!”

In addition to the Special Needs Network, Martin excitedly added that in the fall of this year, at Martin Luther King Hospital, she will open the first-ever Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities (i.e. C.A.D.D.) which will serve as a complete Autism health and community center. Services will be available in the Watts, Compton, and Willowbrook areas.

Evansdixon remarked, “I think this camp is really important because he has a place where he’s understood, where he can thrive, he can excel. They are brilliant and their minds are the minds of geniuses. You just have to find out what their particular interests are– with my son, its numbers, and planets. He does equations that I don’t understand. Mathematically he’s a genius!”