Nonprofit camp takes autism to extreme |

Nonprofit camp takes autism to extreme

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

OLD SNOWMASS ” Aspen has a growing reputation as a place where individuals challenged by the circumstances of their lives can take a break, get in some high-altitude fun and exercise and gain some self-confidence while doing it.

From troubled youths in inner-city ghettos to physically handicapped war veterans and many other groups, an increasing number of people have been brought here by a variety of groups holding sessions in all seasons.

A rather striking addition to that array of organizations and activities is the Extreme Sports Camp (ESC) for youngsters dealing with autism, which is a growing health care concern in the U.S.

Autism is what’s called a “spectrum disorder,” meaning those who have it show varying degrees of severity in their disabilities, both physical and mental.

“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every 150 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder, a 10-fold increase in the rates reported even two decades ago,” declares the ESC website,

The organization was conceived in 2001 by Sallie Bernard, parent of an autistic 20-year old and chairwoman of the board at ESC, and Doug Gilstrap ” ski/snowboard instructor, program director of ESC and a specialist at working with special-needs children and adults.

Bernard, who moved here with her family from New Jersey in 2002, said the ESC grew out of a summertime activity program put together by Gilstrap for Bernard’s son, Bill, in 2000, which quickly grew into a multi-week series of “camps” for a growing list of autistic teenagers and pre-teens.

“There’s a lot of demand,” said Bernard, whose life’s work is what she termed “full-time autism advocacy work” that includes not only the ESC but other national autism organizations as well.

The ESC initially expanded into several week-long camps at the Compass Learning Community in Woody Creek and, starting two years ago after Compass could no longer accommodate the camps, switched to a contract with the Aspen Camp School for the Deaf (ACSD) on Snowmass Creek.

According to ESC Executive Director Elizabeth Miller, the organization is two years into a three-year contract with ACSD, and no decision has been made as to whether that contract will be renewed beyond the summer of 2009.

This year, Miller said, the organization is serving approximately 120 campers over the course of 11 week-long sessions. The organization has a policy of assigning one paid counselor to each individual camper per session, and Miller said that translates to roughly 15 to 20 counselors on hand for each session. The campers are taken daily on outings that include everything from hiking to horseback riding, boating to ropes courses.

The campers, Miller said, are a mix of regional locals hailing from the area between Rifle, Eagle and Aspen, and visitors from elsewhere, although she said that “most of them are from out of state.”

Bernard said the organization currently is working on its “strategic plan” for the future, which includes the possibility of expanding ESC’s work to include older autistic campers as the national autistic population ages. It also might include the hiring of additional specialists to take some of the burden off Gilstrap and permit the organization to work with an expanded group of campers every summer and even in the winters if the demand is there.

According to ESC’s tax form for 2006, the latest year available in the public record, the group in that year brought in revenues of $125,276 and spent $125,126. On the expense side that year, the organization spent $62,174 on salaries and wages, and $42,247 for office and management expenses, recreation fees, program supplies and other items.

Miller said she was only part time in 2006, and that the only other paid staffer was Gilstrap, who was paid an hourly wage.

This year, according to Miller, the organization’s budget roughly is double the amounts in the 2006 tax report.

According to Miller and Bernard, the organization’s income is nearly half from the tuition paid by the campers, between $1,600 and $1,850 per individual depending on the session and the requirements for an aide. Currently on the website, the organization lists a session that includes water skiing on Lake Powell in Utah, with a price tag of $2,000.

The rest of the funding, said Bernard, comes from grants and individual donations, including donations that come in from letter solicitations such as one mailed out recently to Pitkin County property owners.

In 2006, according to the Form 990, the organization reported receiving $69,800 in government grants and $55,476 in “program service revenue.”

As for the future, Bernard said the organization will be joining up with the Aspen Youth Services nonprofit in September for a fundraiser, a mountain biking race in Snowmass, and the two organizations are now seeking teams and sponsors to take part.

She said there also are plans to broaden the geographic scope of the camps, to include a hiking trip in Utah and a week on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, all in response to requests from families with kids in the programs.

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