S’mores and sensory rooms: Operation Shine Camp offers summer camp for autistic children in Nebraska

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Sheelagh Lucas, a teacher at Maxwell, didn’t think a camp for autistic children would work logistically. So, five years ago, she volunteered.

After that first session, she enrolled her son, Alek.

“When you’re living your life with an autistic child, you’re so focused on raising a child, doing your best, and your future, that you don’t always see the community that awaits you if you wanted to just reach out,” Lucas said. “So I did.”

Lucas, his three daughters and her husband now volunteer at camp, looking after their own little campers.

On the last day of camp, Alek and the other 12-year-old campers graduated in a farewell ceremony. Family members gathered with campers and volunteers in a pavilion on the campground and presented graduates with certificates and a chance for volunteers to reflect on each child’s growth over the years. Afterwards, a 20-minute video of photos and videos from the weekend was released. The campers laughed and screamed when they saw each other on the screen.

Eric Harris, Brayden’s father, who graduated from camp this year, wiped tears from his eyes.

“I watched him grow up and I want to talk to more people,” said Christine Harris, Brayden’s mother. “Just seeing him fills my heart.

At Alek’s graduation, Sheelagh Lucas took the stage and spoke.

“There’s actually a whole bunch of people there, a bunch of them sitting in this room, who want to make the world a better place for our kids,” Lucas said. “When your child has a disability like autism, you feel like you’re constantly afraid of what their future will be like without you. But these 150 volunteers showed me that there’s a whole generation of children, adults and people who are going to make a difference, who are going to make things better and who are going to help Alek succeed for the rest of his life.”

Alek grabs his mother’s microphone. “And have a good time.”

On the last day of camp, graduate camper Landyn Prevett had one more activity to check off: a climb to the top of the zipline tower.

“That way I’ll know I can do it in case I have a little camper when I volunteer here who wants to zip line.”

He sat on top of the tower. The height was frightening, even with his big motorhome next to him. Eventually, Landyn ran back down the stairs, unable to conquer the zipline that day. He received high fives and applause for his first attempt, including 10-year-old Franklin camper Kamryn Rewerts the next.

Kamryn climbed up, checked every string, gathered his courage, and shot through the air. She got to the bottom and wanted to go back.

Ten minutes later, dangling her feet above the tower, Kamryn watched her zipline partner as the crowd below began the countdown.

“We are brave,” she said, as she prepared to fly.


The Free Flatwater Press is an independent, non-profit newsroom focused on investigative and corporate reporting.

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