Win a Winner!
Writers & Photographers
Berlitz Summer Camp
by Christina Elston
Marlee Galper didn’t know a thing about autism, but two summers ago she agreed to help out at a Westside day camp for teens with the disorder. It changed her life.
“I didn’t really know what autism was at all,” says Galper, who is now a senior in high school. “I didn’t know what to expect. I was just jumping into it. I had no idea that some of them couldn’t talk, and that some of them would be really hyper and not be able to focus.”
The staff at the Vista Inspire Program, one of the many offerings at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, were ready with plenty of tips and advice to help get the teen volunteers ready for whatever might come up. The program brings children with autism and other special needs together with therapeutic dance, drama, voice, music and musical theater experiences.
And Galper says she found the experience exciting, even transformative, like Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole. “It steps you into a whole other world,” she says of working with kids on the autism spectrum. “You meet all of these amazing people who have all of these out-of-the-box ideas. It opens your eyes to so many new ways of dealing with problems.”
Unfortunately, fear of the unknown shapes many people’s ideas about children with autism. “I feel like people almost think autism is scary,” says Galper. But though they might not speak, Galper says these children do communicate, sometimes with their whole bodies, sometimes even through songs. “They’re not scary at all,” she says.
The first person she met with autism was Steven, a fourth grader who didn’t talk (unlike Galper, who says she loves to talk). “He reminded me of my brother, and I thought, ‘I’m going to hang out with this kid,’” she says. “It was so hard for me to connect at first and it intrigued me. I think it was really cool being able to find another way of communication. I had to jump completely out of my comfort zone.”
She also recalls a middle schooler named Benny who had lots of trouble with kickball. He didn’t speak at all, but did like to sing a special song. One day, he managed to kick the ball, and ran to her in triumph, grabbing her hand and singing. “I’ve never seen anyone smile so big,” she says.
Galper and several of the other teen volunteers liked their summer camp experience so much that they launched Inspired Teens, a teen-operated organization for anyone ages 13 to 19 who wants to work with and raise funds for special-needs kids. Some in the group are on the spectrum themselves, and Galper says they spend lots of time thinking up creative fundraising ideas to help families who need financial assistance to attend Vista Del Mar programs. “It’s just like a hang-out time for us, and we get together and we brainstorm,” she says.
Her experiences with kids with autism have made Galper more patient and understanding, taught her a lot about herself, and even pointed the way to a career path. “I had no idea what I wanted to be a few years ago,” she says. Now she knows she wants to be a speech pathologist, and is hoping to attend University of Oregon in the fall.
Until then, she’ll keep working with the 20 or so teen volunteers in Inspired Teens, which she recommends as a good jumping-off point for anyone interested in working with children with special needs. To get involved, contact Community Outreach Coordinator Jennifer Brook at email@example.com or 310-836-1223 ext 225. “It’s really changed me,” says Galper, “and it’s changed a lot of people.”
Christina Elston is Managing Editor of L.A. Parent.
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