Camp SoulShine offers recreational opportunities for autistic children

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Her brother, Connor Karcher, was the main inspiration for Macon Valley Nursing and Rehabilitation Center's recreational therapist and activities director Bridget Karcher to establish SoulShine camps.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that approximately one in 44 children in the United States has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While various levels of the condition affect children in different ways – from verbal to social to daily function challenges – the reality is that autism is a diagnosis that comes with stigmas and obstacles. 

Recreational therapist and activities director for Macon Valley Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Bridget Karcher, has witnessed firsthand the hurdles associated with autism. 

“My main motivation for the camp is my younger brother, Connor. Growing up, I saw how difficult it was for him [as he was diagnosed with autism] to be included in the same opportunities that I took for granted. I wanted to change how the world perceives individuals with disabilities, so I chose to go to school for recreational therapy at Western Carolina University and I became a certified and licensed recreational therapist.” 

Although a main goal is to develop a program to offer youth with special needs and their families more opportunities to be included in recreational programs, and to provide more general advocacy, 28-year-old Karcher has also organized Camp SoulShine, to be held at Nurture+Nature retreat center in Franklin, June 29 through July 1. 

“We are hoping to host five youth [11 years old and older] with autism, and their guardians, for overnight camp, and we have 10 spots available for day campers,” she said. “So far, we have held fundraisers and collected donations for funding on GoFundMe, but we are also partnering with Knights of Columbus at Saint Francis of Assisi Catholic Church. We are using donations to cover the costs associated with camp, but we are also hoping to provide some scholarships for youths as well.”

Assisting Karcher with this event are volunteers from the Recreational Therapy Program at Western Carolina University and from other nonprofit organizations such as Special Liberty Project, which will be assisting with animal therapy and the camp’s mindfulness archery program.

The cost for Camp SoulShine’s overnight camp is $250, while day camp is $60. Cost includes meals, activities, and “a few surprises,” she said, adding, “Activities such as animal therapy, archery, hiking, arts and crafts, and team-building skills will help the youth grow out of their comfort zones while connecting with their peers.”

Karcher said the camp’s name was inspired by her own family. 

“My grandparents were fans of the Allman Brothers Band and they all loved the song ‘Soulshine.’” Her grandfather was notable Highlands’ modern architect, Jim Fox.

The family-favorite song includes verses that convey Karcher’s intention for students who attend the camps:  

“When you can’t find the light

That guides you through a cloudy day

When the stars ain’t shinin’ bright

And you fill like you’ve lost your way

When the candle lights of home

Burn so very far away

Well you got to let your soul shine.”

“The whole camp will be centered on what’s happening on the inside,” she said. “No matter the disability and where you come from, what matters is what shines through.” 

She explained that her family will be helping in different ways with the camp, and her main role will be as the recreational therapist. Connor, 19, will also be helping where needed.

Karcher would like to see the camp become an annual event that grows to welcome more students – as well as a monthly activity opportunity for local students. “I’m hoping that this event will be a catalyst for future programming and events offered to the special needs community in our area. I’m working on applying for grants to help with these endeavors. I would also like to build up a staff. Franklin is coming along in terms of helping youth with autism. I would like to build on that momentum. I went to Franklin High School and my brother was in the special needs class there, and I’ve just seen things open up for special needs kids over the past few years. It’s encouraging.”

She would also like to see local autism-related efforts “fill in the gaps” for people like her brother, who age out of educational and recreational services. 

Information about the camp and about volunteering for the camp and other activities can be found at www.NurtureNatureRetreat.com. or by emailing bkarcher94@gmail.com. 

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