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Camp Yakety Yak provides a safe and fun space for kids with special needs and their siblings

PMG PHOTO: CLAIRE HOLLEY - Mother Shannon Chollman with three of her four kids: Alex, Lucy and Mary (blue shirt).For the ninth year in a row, a summer camp founded by a Lake Oswego resident will provide children with special needs and their siblings a place where they are truly understood and accepted. Camp Yakety Yak will kick off the season July 8, but it held a carnival Saturday, May 4, at Mountain Park Church to spread the word about the camps and get campers excited for the summer.

Speech-language pathologist Angela Sullivan, whose children both have ADHD, says she started Camp Yakety Yak (CYY) in 2010 after growing tired of her son having issues at other summer camps.

"My son would get kicked out of typical camps when he was little, so I wanted to create a place that would be designed for kids like him," Sullivan said. "The first year, the camp took place in a friend's house, and we only had about 10 kids. I never could have predicted how big we have gotten."

Now, CYY runs five weeklong sessions throughout the summer at Mountain Park Church, each with a different theme — from "Super Yak on the Science Track" to "The Amazing Yak Race." About 80-120 campers ages 5-15 attend each session, according to Sullivan.

The May 4 carnival allowed new families a chance to meet other parents and camp staff, and provided fun activities for kids including a cake walk, obstacle course, making slime and more.

One of the most unique aspects of Camp Yakety Yak is that it's for children with special needs as well as without. Sullivan designed the camp based on the "Reverse Inclusion" model, which strives to make children with special needs feel comfortable in their environment and not feel like outsiders. Seventy-five percent of campers have special needs, while the remaining 25 percent are neurotypical kids — mostly the siblings of special-needs campers.

"All of the kids in the house can go to the same place and have fun," Sullivan said.PMG PHOTO: CLAIRE HOLLEY - Miranda Rohrbeck enjoys a cupcake while surveying the table of prizes.

That is huge for mother Shannon Howard, who has four kids and drives to Lake Oswego from North Portland for the camp. Her son, Alex, has autism; he and his three siblings have attended Camp Yakety Yak for the last four years.

"I don't know what else we would do in the summer. It's like a family. It can be tough, so having a support system really makes a difference," Chollman said. "My kids get to see all of the careers related to working with kids with special needs, which has really impacted my eldest daughter, Mary. I'm pretty sure she'll end up going into this field."

Chollman's son Alex is mostly non-verbal, and uses a touchscreen tablet to communicate. On attending Camp Yakety Yak, he typed, "I feel happy."

Chollman's oldest son is 13, and is serving as a junior counselor at Camp Yakety Yak this year. "I love that they provide that option for kids," Chollman said. "He's a little too old to attend the camp, but too young to get a job, so this is a great leadership opportunity for him."PMG PHOTO: CLAIRE HOLLEY - Silvia Soto (left) learns how to make slime with Yakety Yak counselor Norah Donaldson.

Ten-year-old Mary Chollman is looking forward to being a junior camp counselor one day. "I want to help Alex and people like him," she said. "My favorite part of coming to camp is being around all of these kids that are all gifted in my eyes."

Elise Renning serves as Camp Yakety Yak's special programs director, and also works a special education teacher during the school year.

"I love offering a space for kids who might not have somewhere else to go in the summer. We provide a spot for kids that have struggled in other settings," Renning said. "There's no other place like it."

In addition to the social benefits, a big advantage of attending Camp Yakety Yak is access to the gifted staff, according to Renning.

"There are so many professionals from different disciplines working together at the camp. It's something pretty special to have so many professionals in the same place. It's rare to find that," Renning said. "It's not just about fun — our staff is great about incorporating learning through fun."PMG PHOTO: CLAIRE HOLLEY - Shannon Howard enjoys the trampoline portion of the obstacle course.

Camp Yakety Yak runs five week-long camps from July 8 to August 9. Parents can choose to sign up for as few or many of the weeks as they choose. Renning said that the longer students attend camp, the better. "We have found that the longer we can build relationships, the more time we spend with each child, the more success they have, especially when it comes to returning to school," she said.

For more information on Camp Yakety Yak, visit www.campyaketyyak.org/.

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