YMCA program in Clearwater helps children with special needs gain more confidence

Summer break may be over but the lessons learned at YMCA's Camp Coast will likely last a lifetime.

For Karen Reed, her 8-year-old son, Liam, just finished his second summer session, and those memories will stay with both of them.

"It's a safe place for him to be who he is. They take excellent care of him, and he gets to do things that he would never get to do otherwise," explained Karen.

The YMCA program caters to children with special needs. "COAST" stands for "Children on the Autism Spectrum Together." 

Similar to some kids with autism, Liam struggles socially. Karen credits Camp Coast for her son's newfound confidence. 

"Every day he gets in the car to come home he's like, ‘Mom my friend and I played together.' It's wonderful to see him come out of his shell and really embrace everything that the camp has to offer," said Karen.

Camp Coast offers activities such as swimming and horseback riding, weekly field trips and plenty of other sensory friendly fun.

"Lots of hands-on, lots of messiness and singing songs. It's a normal camp day for any other camper," said Camp Coast counselor Vickie Shire.

Camp Coast does much more than entertain kids. Counselors like Vickie teach them how to move past their struggles and fears.

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"Even if it's just a child eating a certain kind of food or using the restroom by themselves and flushing the toilet because the sound bothers them. That's a huge win for parents. It's not easy sometimes," said Vickie.

It's not always a walk in the park for the camp counselors and volunteers. Each child has a different need and requires specific attention. Even so, Vickie said she cannot imagine spending her days doing anything else. 

"I love it. I love my hugs. I love getting dirty. I love our food fights, water days, and horseback riding. I even love, sometimes, when it's not so great here," said Vickie. "It's a great atmosphere; it's a great growth program for the kids. I love making an impact on my community, and we do it every day at Camp Coast."