Adventure camp for autistic youth


It’s an effort involving two VIU departments and one non-profit organization

An Outdoor Adventure Camp for youth with autism explored oceans

DANE GIBSONSpecial to The NEWS

For six Parksville youth with autism, this summer was one they’ll never forget thanks to a two-week Outdoor Adventure Camp that came together through a collaborative partnership between Vancouver Island University (VIU) and the Parksville Family Resource Association.

True to its name it was designed to ensure that each of the eight scheduled days challenged and thrilled the youth participants, who were between the ages of 13-17, in ways they’ve never been before. Stand-up paddle boarding at Spider Lake, outrigger canoeing around Newcastle Island, sea kayaking, rock climbing and remote trail nature hikes were just a few of the adventures the group tackled.

According to Amy Mihalj, whose 17-year-old son Oliver attended, when she first heard about the opportunity she felt “trepidation and anxiety” that it might not work due to the complexity of the program and activities that were being planned. After talking with her son, her trepidation turned into excitement.

“He really wanted to participate so I took a close look at how it was going to be delivered and what supports would be available,” said Mihalj. “When I saw the quality of staff that would be running the program along with the student supports that were in place I could see that there was going to be enough people to make it work and that he would be safe.”

The idea of the Outdoor Adventure Camp for youth with autism started when former VIU Child and Youth Care (CYC) graduate and current Parksville Family Resource Association program coordinator Ramona Passarelo called her old alma mater. She was put in contact with CYC professor Stephen Javorski, who has an adventure therapy background, and he got behind the idea right away. From there VIU’s outdoor recreation co-ordinator Matt Kellow was asked to meet and discuss collaborating on the project.

“We started talking about how to involve VIU students and we focused on how far we thought we could take something like this in terms of activity levels for youth with autism,” said Javorski. Two CYC students, Graham Cannon and Heather Goodings, joined the project to provide support and get work practicum experience. Javorski says their involvement was crucial to the project’s success.

“During the two weeks of the camp our CYC students built relationships with the youth and learned real leadership skills. They learned physical, emotional and behavioral risk management and provided a bridge between the youth and adults, which was invaluable,” said Javorski.

Kellow, who is an expert outdoor planner and adventure guide, was able to access VIU’s outdoor recreation equipment and van which was not being used while the camp was running.

“To be involved in a project that offered youth with autism opportunities to really get out into nature and push themselves physically was just awesome,” said Kellow. “Even though in some cases a few of the activities were a stretch, it showed them what they are capable of and that they have the ability to do these things. That awareness is something they will carry with them for a very long time.”

Passarello successfully submitted a grant application to the Canadian National Autism Foundation to fund the camp and that was the final piece of the puzzle required to move forward. She says when it all came together, the first day when they went outrigger canoeing to Newcastle Island inlet set a positive tone of team building and adventure that laid the groundwork for the rest of the camp. “Seeing the youth paddling together, having fun and experiencing their first adventure of many to come was a memory that stands out in my mind. That first day set a very positive tone and the camp went on to be an incredible success,” said Passarello. “Essentially, in a world of autism where a youth can often experience confusion, anxiety and exclusion, the impact of attending a full two-week camp that was inviting, comfortable, well-supported and above all fun means they can take these memories to their next social experience or situation where they feel challenged and it will help them feel more confident and accepted as they go forward.”

For Mihalj, who was on-call during the days her son was at adventure camp, not getting a call to come in spoke volumes. She says her son, who loved the rock climbing and paddle-boarding most, would come home tired and sore some days but more importantly he came home happy, and that meant the world to her.

“Being the parent of a person with autism can be very constricting. Life is controlled and limited and you don’t get a lot of easy-going experiences,” said Mihalj. “The adventure camp was an enjoyable, wholesome experience. We don’t get a lot of those and I see this as a prototype that could lead to other programs. When our kids are enjoying themselves, as a parent that means a lot. The Outdoor Adventure Camp had a lot of soul to it and I encourage people to support it because it’s one of the few programs we’ve participated in that makes sense.”

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