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Sara Koppi may look and talk a little different than the kids her age, but put her in a swimming pool and she splashes around just like everyone else.

I met Koppi, 9, at the First Shine Summer Camp for Children with Special Needs in Swannanoa. I jumped into the pool next to her and asked if she’d play with me. “No,” she said with a giggle, slamming her fist in the water sending waves right into my face. We splashed around for well over 10 minutes.

Koppi lives with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes lifelong intellectual disability and developmental delay. She was among a group of 13 youth with special needs who got to attend a four-day sleepaway camp at Warren Wilson College recently.

Sponsored by First Baptist Church of Asheville, the camp returned this year after an eight-year hiatus. Every student got to go for free, and more than 75 people volunteered their time.

“So many of the people you talk to who don’t have special needs remember summer camp, remember friendships, remember activities, remember it as a significant milestone in their life,” said Eddie Morgan, minister of missions and pastoral care at the church. “We wanted these kids to have that same opportunity to connect with others and learn a little more about what they can do. Some of these kids did things they had never been exposed to before.”

During the week, each camper was paired with one or two individual counselors. They went on a hay ride, saw a magician, went swimming at Owen Pool, sang songs, made crafts, watched a puppet show, had a picnic at a farm and went horseback riding.

Campers ranged in ages from 6 to 12. Most came from Buncombe County.

Local experts helped train high school and college-age counselors before the camp. The youth leaders each paid $100 to attend the trainings and participate. They maintained contact with the parents throughout the week.

“It isn’t just a three- or four-day relationship,” said Anna Martin, who was a counselor for five years, and helped bring the camp back in 2015. “It’s something that sustains and impacts your life much more than you’d expect.”

Martin, a former Peace Corps volunteer, spent time in Kenya advocating for deaf and other children with special needs. She is now getting a master’s degree in public policy at Duke University.

“My life now revolves around this because I had that experience 10 to 12 years ago,” she said. “These kids are different in their own way, but they helped me to realize what is truly important in life, to remember no matter what, life is a gift. No matter who we are, no matter what we struggle with, it’s our life and we should live it to the fullest.”

First Baptist hosted its inaugural First Shine Camp in 1991. The idea was that children with special needs should also have a traditional summer camp experience.

The church also wanted to provide respite for parents and guardians and involve its youth as counselors and leaders.

“Children with special needs are special, and they can teach those of us who are counselors and the adults around them a lot about life, love, happiness and the things that are really important,” Morgan said.

Katie Goodspeed, of Wilmington, heard about First Shine Camp from her relatives in Asheville. She was thrilled. Her daughter, Zoe Lois, lives with an undiagnosed disability. She is 6 years old and rarely talks. She still wears a diaper and suffers from hundreds of Absence seizures a day.

“There was no way I would ever be able to send her to camp for typical children. She has so many extra needs,” said Goodspeed, who brought her daughter to the camp in Swannanoa. It was Lois’ first time away from her parents. “It was just amazing to hear about this and know that (the counselors) are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts.”

Lois and I swam in the pool together for most of the afternoon Tuesday. She jumped into the water and I caught her. We held onto the edge and kicked our feet.

When I asked Lois if I could play with her, she said yes. She didn’t say anything else, but she didn’t have to. Her bright eyes and huge grin said it all. Lois loved First Shine Camp, and so did I.

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