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HAMILTON – Being willing to touch a dog, pet a chicken or climb into a canoe for the very first time were huge steps and new experiences for nine children with a spectrum of autism at the Bitterroot Arts for Autism camp at Homestead Organics Farm.

The camp met on a recent Monday, Wednesday and Friday for two hours each day.

“Last year, we did the whole week and we found that was too much – they really needed a day in between for processing the information – for the kids and the adults,” said director Jessica Fitzpatrick. “Two hours with food involved and everybody is happy. More than that and it’s too much of a challenge.”

Bitterroot Arts for Autism is a local nonprofit under the Bitterroot RC&D. It was able to get a $5,000 grant from the Harris Corp. that allowed the group to have mentors – one per child – and train them ahead of time.

“The counselor training is a time of learning about autism sensory profiles and moods of the kids,” said Fitzpatrick. “It’s amazing what the kids are getting to experience and that we’re able to have this amount of kids. It’s been great for the counselors, a break for the parents and an awesome experience for the kids.”

Fitzpatrick said this is the first time for many of these kids to experience a farm – with chickens, goats and dogs.

“We had a few of the kids that were really afraid of the animals, so it’s been a good experience – we start with not touching but just being in the same area,” said Fitzpatrick. “It’s neat to watch the process of desensitizing and being able for the animal to get closer then the kids gradually being able to pet them.”

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The camp was held at Homestead Organics Farm, owned by Laura Garber and Henry Wuensche. On Friday, Wuensche was paddling the canoe and Garber visited with kids on shore.

“Laura and Henry have been a huge, huge help,” said Fitzpatrick. “We have eight staff and nine campers and some siblings – sometimes the older siblings are a huge help and know exactly what their younger brother or sister needs.”

“Because we have the high schoolers that are helping, it is a multi-age experience,” said Garber. “The high schoolers are learning as much as the kids and it’s really fun to help them challenge themselves. All these kids are at a different place on the autism spectrum so they all have a little bit different thing that is challenging for them. For example on the first day, one of the boys never made it past the entry gate, by the second day he came as far as the pole barn and today he is on the boat. Another boy was really scared of the dogs, but today he actually touched the dog. It is small steps – but huge. The most surprising thing is the diversity of challenges and gifts that all these children have.”

The campers picked berries and ate a fresh lunch each day with food from Homestead Organics plus some other organic ingredients.

“We have older children that are special needs but high functioning and they are helping to prepare the lunch each day – and that is a special feature we added this year,” said Fitzgerald. “It makes them feel good, responsible and productive.”

“For some of these kids the food is a new experience and a good introduction to organic and fresh foods,” said Garber.

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The first group out in the canoe was a little bit afraid, but they soon felt safe and more adventurous. Many tried the kayak and one brave little guy was all about just swimming with his life vest.

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Henry, 8, had never been out on a boat before he climbed in and loved the experience.

Melanie Hawk, Henry’s mother, was nearly at a loss for words and had tears of joy.

“This is amazing,” said Hawk. “I’ve never been able to get him to go out on a boat before and I’m so proud of him. Now he’ll be able to go out to the island on Flathead Lake for Cub Scouts.

“Henry enjoys the camp – it makes the campers feel comfortable. Hunter feels safe and comfortable here. He’s enjoying the peer group. It’s giving him a chance to interact. He’s 8 and he doesn’t usually do these things. He enjoys the other kiddos and making amazing choices. This is huge. It’s so peaceful and beautiful and the owners and Jessica have beautiful hearts.”

The kayak and canoe experience was the grand finale to an amazing week at camp for the nine students.

“It’s been an amazing experience for myself, the staff and the children,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s a gorgeous setting. We are so lucky to have this place here. There are goats and geese here by the pond. It is beautiful.”

“Our farm is such a great outdoor classroom that we would be remiss if we didn’t share it,” said Garber.

Bitterroot Arts for Autism is having golfing fundraisers Aug. 7 and 10. For more information, contact Jessica Fitzpatrick at (406) 210-2937.

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