By Neil Schirmer
My wife and I are parents to two loving and sweet kids with various complex needs, including autism. Ryan is 18 and recently graduated from high school, while Allison is 14 and is headed into her first year of high school in the fall. Like many families that include individuals with developmental disabilities, we find vacations and time off to be difficult sometimes. Actually, let’s be honest – they’re difficult a lot! We’ve been fortunate to find some ways to get away as a family that works really well for us, but even with those options, “success” is never guaranteed. My wife and I used to take time as a couple every few years for a week or so when we had more support from people who were familiar with and able to help with the kids. This used to include my mother-in-law who made several trips possible from a cost perspective – if you’re reading this, you’re aware of how expensive overnight care for developmentally disabled kids can be.
As we’ve all grown older, those trips have become less frequent for us. We love our kids, but we need the time away to recharge and make time just for ourselves and each other. Besides this basic need, we feel an additional need to help our children branch out from us more. They’ve grown accustomed to school settings away from us in the daytime during the school year, but they’ve never been apart from my wife and I for any length of time outside of the care of someone they already know, trust, and love, and even those situations were always in the comfort of our home. The stark reality of life is that it’s finite – we will not be there for them someday. Will Ryan and Allison be able to cope and live with people who are wholly new and unfamiliar to them? Do they have the basic skills to cope with that? How do we “practice” that?
My wife discovered Ascendigo after some significant research of summer camp options for kids and young adults with disabilities – she was bowled over by the incredible reviews. No other program out there seemed to be as universally loved, and it happens to be just a three-hour drive from where we live in Colorado. We were weary since, like many of our vacation options, it’s a risk. Do we want to spend a significant chunk of money on something that could fail miserably? Are we going to have to go pick them up after two nights because they won’t stop melting down in a new environment without their Mom and Dad? Are we prepared to deal with that as a family unit? The resounding answer was “yes”, we must. We owed it to our kids and ourselves to give it a try. How else will we know? How else will they learn?
With a healthy leap of faith, we signed our kids up, packed up the biggest luggage bags we had, and sent them off with their checklist of items. We couldn’t send them with every preferred item that they love and seem to be attached to at home. Endless snacks, Slinkys, stuffed animals, and other favorites did not all make the cut. Another curveball we did not anticipate in our planning… how would they do without the routine, the tucking in at bedtime, the breakfast favorites, or the PB&J made cut _just_ right? With a big, deep, group exhalation, we set off for Glenwood Springs.
In spite of the fact that we arrived early, the staff quickly exceeded expectations. We had anticipated just killing a bit of time and stretching our legs after the drive, staying out of the way and letting the staff do their thing to get ready. To our surprise, the camp director, Matt, saw us and went out of his way to stop what he was doing to come out to greet us. He was super friendly and handled introductions with Ryan and Allison with the kind of empathy that only comes from experience. We were instantly set at ease, as were Ryan and Allison. After a brief chat, Matt went back to work and out came Mallary and Megan who introduced themselves as Ryan’s assigned one-to-one caregivers for the week. Their enthusiasm and positivity continued the friendly and welcoming vibe. I think it was here that my wife and I both realized this might actually work out better than we’d hoped.
Our plans were to take some time away together while the kids were at camp, but we wanted to stay close by for at least a day or two, just in case things went sideways. After working through a bit of separation anxiety with Ryan, we finally set out for nearby Snowmass Village for a few days. The first night away came and went without an emergency phone call, and we finally began to relax with the realization that they were probably having a good time. Quick communication via text with Mallary and Allison’s one-to-one, Abby, the following day confirmed it – Ryan and Allison had a bit of a rough go the first night, but settled down and were enjoying themselves! Two days later, we managed a brief FaceTime session that hammered it home. Ryan and Allison were adjusting and having a great time without us, in the care of a well-trained and compassionate staff that could handle anything our kiddos would throw at them.
It’s hard to overstate how much of a breakthrough moment this was for our entire family. Not only did my wife and I get to experience some great places and spend some much needed time together away, our kids were seriously reaching out of their comfort zone, and loving it! They tried rock climbing, horseback riding, boating, and other new outdoor activities in an unfamiliar environment and taking it all in stride. I can’t think of a better way to experience such meaningful growth, most importantly for Ryan and Allison, but also for Mom and Dad. This is a huge testament to the dedication, professionalism, and love that the Ascendigo folks clearly exude for the campers and their families.
The kicker came that Friday of the camp week where the 5-day campers and 7-day campers and their families come together for an awards ceremony. Afterward, the 7-day campers would set out for a hut trip, weather permitting, and the 5-day campers would head home. We signed up Ryan and Allison for the full week but thought we would ease them into “camp life” and give them the option to bail after day 5. My wife and I agreed that we would take our queues from the kids and let them decide. To our amazement and delight, they both wanted to stay the extra two days.
I can’t imagine a better endorsement for Ascendigo than that, directly from first-time campers Ryan and Allison. The entire staff is on the same page, and they all work together to create a friendly, positive, energetic environment that is unmatched. Needless to say, we will be back again as soon as we can arrange it and look forward to sending our kids off for more adventures, growth, and fun with this wonderful group of folks.