Andy's Story: Chapter Four
While my parents were proud of what they had accomplished in getting Camp LeMann off the ground, they knew that Andy would eventually need more out of a summer program. When Andy turned 11 they started looking into sleep away camps for special needs children. Summit Camp is located in Wayne County, PA and at the time catered to children and teens like Andy, whose main issues were learning disabilities and social disorders. It was recommended to my parents by friends from the organization, whose children were already going there, so for my parents it seemed like an easy enough transition. That summer Andy was put on a bus that traveled 4 hours away from his home, his family, and everything that was safe to him, for 8 weeks of the completely unknown.
Andy never looked back. He attended Summit Camp for another 7 summers, until he was 18 years old. He made amazing friends at camp that he kept in touch with throughout the year, years to come and some of those friends he still speaks with to this very day!
When you have a handicapped child you have no choice but to make all the decisions for them. It is a very burdensome task at times because you are not always sure those decisions are going to be the right ones. As my Mom puts it "We made decisions that we thought Andy could live with."
My mother recalls crying as Andy boarded the bus that first time going to Summit. "We believed we were doing the right thing by giving Andy a chance to become independent." she says, "But it was also the first time we, as parents, would have no control. We were sending him 4 hours away from us. What if something happened? What if he missed us and we weren't there? What if the counselors couldn't control him? I remember so many things racing through my mind. But most of all I remember thinking.. Is this really what Andy wants? Are we doing the right thing, for him?"
While sending Andy to sleep away camp turned out to be the right decision, there was a bigger decision to be made, and one that would impact Andy's growth over the next several years.
1970 would mark the year that Andy was to attend Junior High School, which we refer to today as Middle School. Jr. High would be for grades 7 - 9 and High School grades 10 - 12. The problem my parents faced was this; there were no special classes for middle or high school special needs kids. Andy would have to be mainstreamed.
"We had three choices on how we could continue Andy's education." explains my Mom, "We could send him to private school, all of which were boarding schools; we could send him to a Vocational Education/Training school( BOCES), which he could be bussed to daily, or mainstream him into regular classes at his local Jr. High and High School." She continued, "You have to understand that at this point Andy was a teenager and his strange behaviors, which he still had many of (talking to himself, making strange noises, saying inappropriate things, sudden outbursts), were now coming from a teenager as opposed to a cute little boy. Kids his own age became less tolerant and so he became more of an outcast. We knew in our hearts that mainstreaming Andy was just not an option as he would never be accepted."
She pauses here and I realize this is pretty painful for her to talk about. "Andy only knew from the kids he went to special classes with, the kids in his Rec program, summer camp friends, friends from the organization, and his brother and sister. He didn't interact with any of the neighborhood kids and we never encouraged it. Maybe it wasn't right, keeping him so sheltered, but he had friends and family and he was ok, and we were ok."
Ruling out Jr. High School, my parents looked into private school, but not very enthusiastically. Andy was finally comfortable in his home and my parents really didn't want to take him away from his family, especially my brother and I. So, in the end, private school was ruled out as well.
"I think the hardest part of our choosing the right path for Andy was coming to grips with the fact that Andy was not going to surpass a certain learning level." my Mom explains, "There was no college in Andy's future and to tell the truth, we didn't even know if he would be capable of learning a trade or skill that would give him the ability to work." My Mom is struggling to finish and after a long pause and a heavy sigh she tells me "I forget how difficult a time this was for us. There were so many unknowns. We chose to send Andy to BOCES but there was no set curriculum, no goals, no IEP's like they have today. These teachers were flying by the seat of their pants, and we had no choice but to trust them and the administration."
BOCES, while it did not advance Andy academically, he did flourish socially. He participated in school events and even had the lead in a school musical; he learned to play the violin; he transitioned through all the classes seamlessly and forged several friendships. To make up for BOCES lack of strong traditional academics, my parents hired several tutors, therapists and Special Education professionals throughout the years to help strike a balance. Andy remained at BOCES until he graduated the program at age 21.
I ask my Mom why this is such a difficult time in Andy's life for her to talk about. It seems as if BOCES was the right decision, and that she can look back on it with little regret. "Was it?" she asks. "You say that because Andy was in a program that he was able to get through. But when I look back on those years I see a boy, who from the age of 13 until he was 21 never really grew up, he just, well, he just grew older."