For the past 11 years, Mississippi State Professor Sandy Devlin has raised thousands of dollars to put on a summer camp.
But not just any camp — the only free residential camp in the country for children with autism.
“In my experience, the kids in special education typically get the leftovers. There’s never enough money to help them,” said Devlin, who has taught with MSU’s special education program since 1981. “My idea for this camp is it’s all beautiful. I want them to have a really nice camp experience, and I don’t want lack of money to turn families away.”
Camp Jigsaw, as the week-long experience is called, began in 2007 with six campers.
That first summer, activities took place on MSU’s campus during the day, but Devlin had to house campers at her home each night.
“We quickly outgrew that,” she said.
Devlin doesn’t advertise the camp much, so campers mostly learn of it through word-of-mouth. Even so, the camp has grown to host 48 teenage boys this year. Devlin raised $28,000 — mostly through raffles, lemonade stands and business donations — to make it happen.
“If I had more funding,” she added, “I would make it even bigger.”
Helping campers succeed
Thursday morning, Jigsaw’s 48 campers danced in the lobby of Hurst Hall on MSU’s campus — their residence for the week. Arms swung side-to-side, some attempted popular dance moves and smiles filled faces.
Thursday’s dance session was practice for a camp talent show that night, which, Devlin said, offers important opportunities for socialization.
“Kids with autism have a social skills deficit and often a language skills deficit, so we try to develop those skills,” Devlin said.
During the week, kids start each day with a social skills training. The goal, Devlin added, is to teach them how to successfully navigate social situations and relationships, and even use humor to their advantage.
Officers from the Starkville Police Department also visited Thursday to share how law enforcement works.
“The interaction is good for the kids,” said Brandon Lovelady, SPD’s public information officer. “It’s good for them to see authority figures.”
Campers put their training to the test daily, as counselors take them bowling and skating and even to Lake Tiak-O’Khata and group painting classes.
“We do all the things kids typically do at camp,” Devlin said. “We just have a special interest in growing their independence and self-esteem.”
Kids attend the camp from as far away as Alaska, but for some, it’s right at home.
This year marks 16-year-old Andrew Carlisle’s third summer at Camp Jigsaw, always held the final week of June.
“I’ve enjoyed the love I get every year,” said Carlisle, a Starkville native.
“I’ve learned to not judge people,” he added. “You truly don’t know a person until you meet them. Some people look at disabilities as a disadvantage, but I’ve learned what makes you different … makes you special.”
According to Devlin, autism is a spectrum, meaning the disability ranges in levels of severity.
Carlisle said he’s one of the highest functioning campers, which allows him to help bring others out of their shells. He even wants to become a camp counselor when he turns 18.
“Having autism, I can relate,” Carlisle said. “So I think that will make me an even better counselor.”
Carlisle, like most kids, has a dream job — to become a flight attendant.
“I want to travel,” he said. “Maybe I can spread the word about Camp Jigsaw, as well.”
Devlin, who’s always been drawn to those with special needs, said her field needs more “strong, good people with leadership abilities” to teach kids.
“There are a lot of jobs in special education,” Devlin said. “I wish I could get people to see how rewarding it is to see your students succeed.”
Breana Jamison, a 27-year-old Columbus native, has worked with Camp Jigsaw for five years. When she was a graduate student in MSU’s special education program, the camp offered an opportunity for her to complete her 90-hour, hands-on internship requirement. Now, she does it for fun.
“I just love it,” Jamison said. “I’ve always had a passion for special education. I fell in love with it, and I can’t look back.”
Jamison is one of 18 camp counselors this year.
She enjoys seeing the progress campers make. Campers who were struggling with social skills in years past, she said, now step in to help new faces.
“This is a safe place for our kids,” she said. “They can be themselves here, and they get to see they’re not alone.”
Devlin, who created a private Facebook group through which campers interact, said lasting friendships are forged during the one week of camp. The camp organizer hears of kids making arrangements to meet for lunch or visit one another for sleepovers.
“They’re doing typical teenage things,” Devlin said.
“I knew we could do good here,” she added. “I’m so thrilled they’re confident enough to make those phone calls.”
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