Merklinghaus' son, Max, is autistic. People with special needs have all kinds of opportunities to interact in public school, but after they graduate, there were few places for them to go, she said.
So Merklinghaus worked with Ed McDowell, Warm Beach executive director, and Laurie Fertello, disabilities ministry director, to create a summer camp.
"I was just so impressed with Warm Beach's desire to make it happen," Merklinghaus said. "When you have a special needs child, you hear 'no' so often. With Warm Beach it was, 'Hey, let's make this happen.'"
The non-denominational Christian camp known for its winter Christmas lights displays began offering the Special Friends Day Camp that summer for 22 participants.
This summer, it's offering four week-long camps to serve adults with mental and physical disabilities in Snohomish County.
"We've just seen a real strong growth in the program," Fertello said. "It has been such a blessing for people with disabilities and their families. It gives them a bit of respite.
"We hear so often that a lot of time there's no break from the challenges of caring for someone with special needs. This gives them a chance to relax and step away."
The program, for people age 15 and older, encourages campers to participate in swimming, crafts, mini-golf, field games, music, horse rides and more. The camps also offer chapel time, singing of hymns and Bible study.
"It's not a Bible program but that is a component of our program," Fertello said.
Camps are scheduled from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. July 9-12, July 16-19, July 23-26, and Aug. 6-9. Lunch and snacks are provided. The camps cost $198 a week, but scholarships are available for low-income families.
To host these camps, Warm Beach works with Village Community Services, Eagle Wings Ministries, Smokey Point Community Church, staff members from Children's Hospital, and educators from the Stanwood School District.
One-on-one "buddies" are provided for each camper on the nearly 300 acres at Warm Beach's facility. Many of these assistants are volunteers who come for the week. More volunteers are needed. Overnight accommodations are offered.
Merklinghaus, who lived in Stanwood but has since moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, will miss the camp for the first time this year. But Max, now 26, still attends and also volunteers on the mini-golf course.
She praised the staff at Warm Beach.
"They've just embraced him and loved on him," Merklinghaus said.
To register for the Special Friends Day Camp, apply to be a volunteer, or for more information, call Warm Beach Camp at 800-228-6724; or got to www.specialfriends.warmbeach.com.
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