Haaken Williams is a runner, a jumper, a 6-year-old in seemingly perpetual motion. At Everett’s Forest Park the other day, he had what his grandmother called “the time of his life” doing what kids do — playing and having fun.
Along with his sister, 5-year-old Isla, and brother Soren, 4, Haaken attended last week’s morning sessions of Camp Prov, a day camp for children with special needs and their siblings.
The camp experience was a first for Haaken, who has autism.
On Wednesday, he dashed from one play structure to the next at Forest Park’s new, inclusive playground, where children are greeted by “Rosie” the elephant sculpture. Installed late last year, the playground has ramps for easy access, bucket-seat swings, a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round, lower slides, a spinning globe, chimes, drums, a soft turf surface, and more.
During craft time, Haaken’s buddy for the day, 22-year-old Megan Pfohl, helped him make a sun visor — which he chose not to wear. Pfohl volunteered at Camp Prov during her Jackson High School years, and will soon be studying for a master’s degree in occupational therapy at the University of Washington.
In swimsuits toward the end of the session, kids found relief from the heat at the park’s upgraded splash pad, a project supported by the Rotary Club of Everett. Standing under a whale tail, Haaken hopped a fountain in the splash zone that had created a rainbow.
It was that kind of day, beautiful and full of possibilities.
Due to the coronavirus, Camp Prov was canceled in 2020, which would have been its 24th summer. The annual program was back this year, with a limited number of children.
Jim Phillips, manager of the Providence Children’s Center and a physical therapist, said 150 kids in all attended 10 sessions over five weeks in July and August. That’s far fewer than the 450 normally served in years past. Unlike previous years, teen volunteers didn’t join the effort. Rather, Camp Prov was staffed by paid unit leaders, many of them college students looking forward to careers in health care, occupational therapy and related fields.
Haaken’s mother, Malea Williams, said the week’s interaction came at a critical time for her son. She likely speaks for many parents who’ve seen children struggle as the pandemic has curtailed services for people with special needs.
Last school year, Haaken was scheduled to be in kindergarten, in special education. Closures related to coronavirus restrictions halted in-person learning.
“We tried to do online school, but it was really triggering for him,” said Williams, whose husband, Dr. Matt Williams, is a dentist in Marysville. Just seeing the screen can bring on a tantrum for Haaken, who thrives on structure, his mother said.
The Williams family lives in Seattle. Before the pandemic, Haaken had been in a birth-to-age-3 program, and later attended developmental preschool in the Seattle School District. He’s had private help with applied behavioral analysis, and specialized assistance with speech through school.
“We’ve had a loss of services, and had to watch these regressions,” said Williams, describing a decline in Haaken’s speech. “These therapists are essential to us — they are our essential workers,” said Williams, whose two younger children are typically developing.
“He’s having the time of his life,” said Cheri Russum, Malea Williams’ mother and grandmother to Haaken, Isla and Soren.
Russum is senior communication manager for Providence in Northwest Washington, but on Wednesday she was at the park as a doting grandmother.
“He’s having the time of his life. It’s fun for me to see,” said Russum, sharing that Haaken loves climbing and the water.
Camp Prov is a program of the Providence Children’s Center, part of Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. The center helps children with conditions affecting growth and development. The camp is supported by the Providence General Children’s Association and the Providence General Foundation.
Last week’s sessions were the final ones this summer. Tuition was $110 per camper for a week. Due to the need to keep attendance down, age limits were 4 to 9, or 4 to 7 for siblings. Phillips said safety was top of mind, with one staffer filling the role of “COVID lead,” temperature checks daily, and a plentiful supply of personal protective equipment. Some kids wore masks, but Phillips said “some can’t.”
For Malea Williams, Camp Prov was more than a break from her three kids. The benefits weren’t only for Haaken, but for his sister and brother. “More exposure to diversity, to wheelchairs, that was part of my other kids’ compassion trajectory,” she said.
Phillips said children’s health issues at Camp Prov have included spinal muscular atrophy, cerebral palsy, rare genetic disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and other conditions.
Samantha Ligman is in year two of a doctor of physical therapy program at Eastern Washington University. At Camp Prov, she cheered on her buddy, a tiny girl who used a walker to inch her way toward the splash pad’s mist.
At a craft table, Lainey Nations, 22, helped 7-year-old Isaiah Kobernik write down his favorite superheroes. Nations worked two years ago at Camp Prov, and is now studying nursing at Washington State University in Spokane. “I had never worked with children with special needs before,” she said. “Through this, I really developed a passion.”
“You can learn a lot through every situation. It’s a gift, a privilege to be Haaken’s grandma,” said Russum. “And this is a place of hope.”
Julie Muhlstein: email@example.com