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At Operation Shine Camp, kids with autism can spread their wings

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At Operation Shine Camp, kids with autism can spread their wings

Pilots of the LifeNet helicopter based at North Platte’s Great Plains Health banter Saturday morning with two of the participants at the Kids and Dreams Foundation’s Operation Shine Camp. The annual three-day camp, which concludes Sunday, is being held for the first time at Maranatha Bible Camp south of Maxwell.

Given a chance, 11-year-old Drake Scott would spend his life being a meteorologist. Or chasing tornadoes.

The Grand Island boy, one of 29 children with autism at this weekend’s Operation Shine Camp at Maranatha Bible Camp, said he’s into soccer, video games and “basically all subjects you do in school.”

But wait …

“I’ve got one more interest: weather. I love weather,” said Drake, who was diagnosed in second grade on the high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome end of the autism spectrum.

“I’ve been asking my mom when there’s a huge storm: ‘Mom! You can go chase this storm!’ She really doesn’t say anything (but) ‘We really shouldn’t do that.’”

The 7- to 12-year-olds at the three-day Bible camp south of Maxwell have varying degrees of intensity of autism, said volunteers with the Kearney-area Kids and Dreams Foundation.

They reflect the vast expansion in understanding since Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning 1988 film “Rain Man” presented the most profound type — and long believed to be the only one — of the neurological and developmental disorder.

Medical professionals today speak of a broad range of expressions of “autism spectrum disorder,” though those who live it usually share common challenges in interacting with others and dealing with various sensitivities to stimuli.

“If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual,” said Aaron Bly, who founded Kids and Dreams in 2013 with his wife, Kerri.

The couple, who live between Shelton and Kenesaw, know the challenges of autism from raising their son Trae, now 17 and an incoming Shelton High School senior.

Trae was diagnosed with autism at age 3, Bly said. But the family often felt frustrated as Aaron and Kerri sought answers to his developmental delays.

“When you’re a family on the spectrum, you think ‘Where do we turn? Where do we go?’” he said. “We started the foundation to provide support to people like us.”

The Blys’ foundation offers resources on its website (kidsanddreams.org), and it has sponsored speakers such as Anthony Ianni, the first known NCAA Division I basketball player on the autism spectrum while playing for Michigan State’s 2010 Final Four team.

Operation Shine Camp, started six years ago, offers similar activities to other summer camps, Bly said. But it’s designed to give children on the spectrum a chance to meet each other in a supportive environment.

Instead of having one volunteer for every two to three campers, Operation Shine Camp turns that ratio around.

Sheelagh Lucas of North Platte, whose 13-year-old son Alek is on the spectrum, said he benefited immensely from the group’s previous camps at Covenant Cedars Bible Camp near Central City.

“He grew confidence in himself and (in) being away from his safety net — the people he’s with every single day,” said Lucas, special education director at Maxwell Public Schools.

Bly said Kids and Dreams planned to hold its 2020 Operation Shine Camp at Maranatha. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed that plan until this year.

The foundation still holds camps at Covenant Cedars and hopes to expand to the Lincoln and Omaha area, he said. But he expects to be back at Camp Maranatha for some years to come after this weekend’s camp ends Sunday.

“We knew we needed to come out to western Nebraska,” Bly said, “because the resources for kids and families aren’t so great here.”

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