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Support, Love, + Acceptance at Camp Encourage

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I first attended Camp Encourage in 2010 with the hopes of finding a fun and creative way to connect with individuals diagnosed with autism. The experience solidified my belief that I belonged in a service-related field and exposed me to the beauty of working with autism and family members of those with autism.  There’s this incredible feeling of acceptance that radiates through every single person you meet at camp--the chefs, the counselors, the peer models, the owners. I attribute so much of my service-based foundation to what I learned from the individuals I worked with at Cmp Encourage.

In order to share some of the magic of Camp Encourage, I interviewed founder, Kelly Lee. Below, I share her interview with you in the hopes that you can feel a bit of that inclusive joy that inspired me so deeply. -Elise Mitchell: Executive Director of DotCom Therapy

Kelly, tell me a bit about Camp Encourage.  

Camp Encourage was founded in 2007 with a mission "to encourage social growth, independence, and self-esteem in youth with autism spectrum disorder through a quality, overnight camp experience located in the greater Kansas City area.”

Camp Encourage is so unique because all those who attend receive:

  • a whopping amount of love and acceptance
  • lessons in social and emotional competence
  • sensory supports + visual strategies + positive behavioral supports
  • adventure based programming 
  • traditional camp activities such as horseback riding, archery, fishing, swimming, hayride, art activities, and singing by the campfire
  • activities tailored around the individual campers’ interests 
  • peer modeling
  • so, so, so much more.


Camp Encourage presently serves residents of Missouri and Kansas on the autism spectrum who are:

  • between the ages of 8 and 18 at the time of camp
  • at least fairly independent with self-care skills 
  • able to stay with or near the group 
  • able to tolerate the outdoors and all that nature brings +  enjoy activities on the schedule
  • successful with a 3:2 or 2:1 child:adult ratio
  • not presently exhibiting behavioral or functional needs that would warrant the constant support of 1:1 assistance


The somewhat official story of the beginnings of Camp Encourage, in a nutshell.

For a handful of years and in a handful of roles, my friend and colleague, Dr. Kaye Otten and I were involved in a similar camp in the area. In 2006, we received a call from a parent of one of our previous campers that the nonprofit that hosted Camp Determination would be closing its doors. The family was crushed, fearing that the positive experience her son had through the year, the experience he most looked forward to, was no longer available. She begged that we consider taking action to keep an overnight camp for youth with ASD available in Kansas City.


I was a new mom, loved my part-time gig as an Autism Specialist and although my heart was broken for the loss of Camp Determination, I hung up the phone with tears in my eyes and a deep desire to help, yet I had absolute resistance to take action. My resistance softened after thinking it through and receiving additional phone calls from prior campers and parents indicating that no one could "take the reigns” and bring a camp to life without knowing the numerous details involved in overseeing the lofty task.

Together, we thought about the lives changed through the camp, reflected on our own childhood summer camp experiences, and decided we couldn’t sit it out. Personally, my inspiration was also derived from my grandmother Nellie Mae (teacher extraordinaire), my supportive parents (and their encouragement of exploring and appreciating the great outdoors), stellar childhood educators like Joan Shields and Sandy Clutter, my excellent undergraduate and graduate studies (Go MU! Go KU!), my always-there-for-me husband, Ryan, my strong belief in the importance of self-esteem and social development. So, we took the leap.

Hand in hand, we created by-laws, developed a Board of Directors, and co-founded a nonprofit, Camp Encourage. Never would I have imagined that we could have jumped in and taken care of all of the ground-up details, but we did. Faith, hope, and a strong belief in the power of something very good will do that to you. 

If you had to summarize some of the outcomes you hope campers and/or families receive from camp, what would those be?

Camp Encourage strives to provide an opportunity where each camper: gains recreational skills, feels proud about who he or she is, can shine by exhibiting his or her talents, is able to share positive experiences with others with similar interests and abilities, can connect and keep in touch with new friends, and knows that there is a place where judgments and teasing are absent.

Further, Camp Encourage provides parents, siblings and other family members with much needed respite for four days and three nights.

With your background in education and the outcomes you've seen from camp, what advice would you give teachers, therapists, parents, etc looking for ways to achieve inclusion for individuals with ASD?

I’ve learned so much from supporting youth in this environment! Here are some of my go-to tips:

  • Step into the shoes of the parents and caregivers—provide grace and understanding—EVERYtime. No matter what.
  • Prioritize what truly matters when developing goals and programming. When it all shakes down, what skills are truly important for the individual as an adult?
  • Always consider the importance of gaining skills of independence (monitor and fade prompts, for example).
  • Ensure that goals are developmentally appropriate (it never feels good to have unrealistic expectations) and then celebrate EVERY little step of growth.
  • See ABILITIES before so-called "weaknesses.” Ensure that strengths and talents have opportunities to shine!
  • Encourage and teach skills of self-advocacy and self-awareness. Teach social competency just as you would a new academic skill (build from previously learned skills, model, practice, provide feedback, repeat)
  • Teach skills of recreation—through such activities, one can connect socially, gain self-esteem, and more!
  • Above all else, always keep in mind that every child with ASD is an individual—one that is deserving of individualized support, love, and acceptance.


Click here to donate to Camp Encourage or visit their sponsorship page to learn more about other opportunities to keep Camp Encourage thriving.  

If you are interested in therapy services for students with ASD, please contact DotCom Therapy




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