After 34 years, the coordinator of the Summerside Express summer camp for children with special needs is retiring.
Mark Lerner founded the camp in 1986, and had a bittersweet goodbye to the project he has devoted much of his adult life to running on August 14.
“I really enjoyed working with kids, and I feel that I’ve come to the place in my life where I can hand the reins over to somebody else and enjoy retirement,” Lerner said.
Over the last three decades, Lerner has met touched the lives of many people in Campbell River. He often gets stopped on the side of the road by old friends who went through Summerside, asking if they can join up again because of their remembered experiences.
“My passion for this comes because I was born with no hip. I’ve had seven hip replacements, so I’ve been a disabled person all my life. I’ve always had a passion working with youth that have had disabilties like myself,” he said. “I know how difficult it is to work in a world where you don’t have all of your abilities to manoeuvre, comprehend and understand it. It’s why I’ve been involved in this. I’ve made some great relationships.”
Lerner has also worked with kids in the school system, where he was a care worker through his career.
Summerside Express campers get to explore and enjoy the recreational activities on Vancouver Island. They go anywhere from beaches in the Qualicum area to hikes near Campbell River.
“This year they went to places in Parksville, Qualicum, and here, Sayward and parks and beaches around here like McIvor lake, Miracle Beach and so forth. We do fun recreational activities. We went to animal recovery places, some petting farms down in the Coombs area and whatnot,” he said.
The goal of the camp is to get the kids out and active with their peers. Getting them out of social bubbles is a big part of why the camp exists.
“The focus here is to get the kids moving and to get them away from screens. So often, they go to screen time as opposed to going out, having fun and engaging with other kids,” Lerner explained. “What this program does for these kids is what I refer to as build grit. In otherwords, they learn how to problem solve, how to communicate better. For example I have about 40 per cent of the children who are ASD, which refers to the autistic spectrum. The biggest problem with those children is that they live in a very closed social world.
“Getting them to be around other children in different environments and different understandings and different things, getting them to problem solve and work through it, it’s just amazing what they can do and the amount of fun they have,” he added.
And the camp definitely looks fun.
“They get to be with their own group of people for the first time in a casual environment,” said recreational aide Jesse Kennedy. “It’s just so exciting for them. A lot of them don’t go to school together, so when they come in the summer they get to see their best friends in the world and the people they’re comfortable with, and they just get so excited.”
This year, since the pandemic has changed how things are done, Lerner and his staff have had to increase the amount of buses they use to get around. That prompted the campers to have a sort of rivalry between the yellow and green buses. On Friday, those buses got covered in condiments by the campers, trying to “get” the other bus.
Campers were also treated to a pizza party in their last day.
One of the campers, Kate Mader, wrote a card to Lerner because it was his last day. She wrote: “I’ve been to many camps, but this one has a special place in my heart… I love the diversity at Summerside Express; friendships are more meaningful that way. I’ve always felt welcomed and accepted here at camp. Living in a neurotypical world can be very lonely sometimes, and it’s awesome making friends who most likely feel the same way I do.”
People with children who could benefit from Summerside Express can contact the city of Campbell River, who can help facilitate the process. Other activities also exist throughout the year, including an upcoming drop in gym day at the Campbell River Community Centre.