Camp SOAR bigger than ever

Special needs camp sees 350 campers, more than 400 volunteers

by Josh Whitener

Irish dance champion Patrick Quinlivan, of Matthews, shows campers some Irish dance moves at Camp SOAR, Charlotte’s annual special needs camp. Josh Whitener/MMHW photo

Camp SOAR has taken off since its inception 12 years ago, but this year it hit a new milestone. The annual special needs camp, which took place Monday through Friday this week, drew in more campers and volunteers from all over the region than ever before.

Nearly 350 campers and more than 400 volunteers showed up to Camp SOAR, or Special Olympics Athletic Retreat, held at the Sandra and Leon Levine Jewish Community Center in south Charlotte, who lend their facility to the event free of charge. “We actually had to turn away volunteers this year,” said media relations specialist Al Tinson. “We’ve never had to do that before. We’ve had a huge response this year.”

Camp SOAR offers individuals with physical and/or mental disabilities the opportunity to participate in various sports, such as volleyball, tennis, bocce ball, soccer, basketball, floor hockey and swimming. Campers age 26 and up attend on Monday and Tuesday, while those ages 10 to 25 participate on Wednesday and Thursday, and everyone is invited to return on Friday for pizza and an end-of-the-week celebration.

Campers also participate in arts and crafts activities, enjoy a free lunch and celebrate the culmination of the week with a special dance party on Friday. And for the first time ever, Camp SOAR offered campers a chance to dance during the week.

Anna Quinlivan, a Matthews resident majoring in special education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, brought a team of Irish dancers to work with campers ages 26 and up on Monday and Tuesday. She and her brother, Patrick, who has competed in international Irish dance competitions, brought their dance group, Rince na h’Eiearran (Gaelic for “Dance of Ireland”) to teach basic Irish dance moves to groups of about 25 campers throughout the day.

“It’s not something (the campers) would think of doing,” said Quinlivan, who has volunteered for five years with Camp SOAR. “All the other activities are amazing, but they get to do those all the time. They always do basketball and volleyball, so bringing in something fresh, that was my favorite part.”

The craft of the year was making pillowcases to send to troops in Afghanistan as well as the Wounded Warriors at Fort Bragg. One hundred pillowcases were donated to Camp SOAR for the campers to decorate for the soldiers.

Eileen Schwartz, the volunteer who coordinates the arts and crafts, got the idea to decorate the pillowcases after speaking to a friend whose husband is fighting in Afghanistan. When Schwartz asked her friend what the soldiers needed most, pillows and pillowcases were at the top of the list.

At the end of the week, the 100 pillowcases will be divided in half and distributed to the designated locations along with special postcards the campers design annually for the troops.

“So many people give to the campers, and this time (the campers) have an opportunity to give back to those who care so much about our country and about our freedom,” Schwartz said. “They’re sending a piece of themselves and their love to people who really need the love and support from individuals.”

Throughout the day, each camper is paired with a “buddy” who provides assistance and encouragement during the various activities. Volunteers age 16 and up serve as buddies, and many, such as recent Charlotte Catholic grad Sara Schuler, enjoy it so much that they come back each year.

“Being with the (campers) is a really, really humbling experience,” said Schuler, who has worked extensively with Charlotte Catholic’s Camp SOAR club. “You can just always tell how much they appreciate you being here and doing (this) for them. Even the littlest things can make the biggest difference.”

This year, for the first time ever, Camp SOAR will present the Vickie Bowler Volunteer Award to a special volunteer on Friday. The award is dedicated in memory of Charlotte Camp SOAR founder Bob Bowler’s daughter, Vickie, an avid volunteer who recently passed away.

“(The award) will be given to a volunteer who has gone above and beyond with their passion, enthusiasm and dedication to Camp SOAR,” Bowler said, adding that the camp plans to present the award annually. “It’s going to be very special.”

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