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Scholarship from Nuclear Fuel Services helps local youngster experience camp

Thanks to a scholarship from Nuclear Fuel Services, Steve and Sheri Bakken say their son, Sebastian, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, was able to have a positive camp experience for the very first time.
Ten-year-old Sebastian and his brother, Spencer, both received scholarships that enabled them to attend camp at Doe River Gorge in Carter County a few weeks ago, where they developed new skills, gained confidence and had fun.
“Every morning we would exercise and then after breakfast, we would worship,” Sebastian said. “We read the entire book of John and learned scripture. I also got friends.”
While many families send their children to camp each year, the opportunity for Sebastian and Spencer to attend Doe River Camp was a milestone for the Bakken family.
“This is something we have struggled with since Sebastian was diagnosed (with Asperger’s Syndrome),” Sheri said. “We are so blessed to have found a place like Doe River Gorge to get past those challenges and help both Sebastian and Spencer to grow in spiritual development and confidence.”
Sheri explained that since Sebastian was diagnosed six years ago, her son has experienced significant rejection, including being expelled from child care facilities and from school due to his special needs. Sebastian is currently homeschooled, but Sheri added that she and her husband have been searching for a camp willing to accommodate their son’s special needs.
“Doe River Gorge is the one ministry that has been able to accommodate him,” Sheri said. “We feel like we need to go out and tell everyone about it.”
While the NFS scholarships made it possible for both Sebastian and Spencer to attend camp, administrators at Doe River Gorge invited Steve Bakken to attend the camp with his sons in order to help counselors with Sebastian, if necessary.
“A lot of the counselors already had experience with children with autism of different ranges,” Steve Bakken said. “All the counselors and all the staff really went out of their way. I wanted to go with (Sebastian) and see if this (camp) would be something he would be able to do on his own. I stayed back and coached along the way. After talking to the staff and seeing what happened, I would be comfortable leaving him alone (at camp).”
Steve and Sheri Bakken went on to explain that because of Sebastian’s Asperger’s diagnosis, he needs a structured environment, well-planned activities and preparation for changes in schedules. Sebastian also struggles a little with fine motor skills development and social interaction – and camp helped him to work on both.
“Camp really helped him with his social skills when interacting and having conversations with others,” Steve explained. “It’s something we’ve been working on. When someone falls down, he shows empathy. That’s something we’ve had to teach him. Sebastian stayed in the same cabin as Spencer, but Sebastian had a few of the boys he gravitated to, and it was the same with Spencer. They were able to have their own friends they could talk to.”
And the best part of all, Steve and Sheri said, is that Sebastian was finally accepted by others.
“The other kids would cheer each other on and really encourage each other,” Steve said. “The counselors didn’t act like he was different. They kept me aware of the schedule or any changes, so I could prepare him, but they put him right there in the mainstream.”
And with the variety of challenges provided at Doe River Gorge, Sebastian was able to work on some of the motor skills he has trouble with. From technical tree climbing to the zipline, Sebastian was able to improve those skills and gain confidence at the same time.
“It was so nice to see all the challenges they have for children,” Sheri said. “They had technical tree climbing, and (counselors) teach them how to do that and empower them and give them confidence in themselves. That’s something all children need.”
Sheri added that after all the challenges their family has faced since Sebastian’s diagnosis, NFS and Doe River Gorge provided a positive experience for both of her children that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
“The counselors (at Doe River Gorge) are not afraid to help children with disabilities,” Sheri said. “It’s refreshing. In the past, we’ve always had to be there to coach or to be involved in some way, which we don’t mind. But to find somewhere that is so accommodating – this is a real eye-opener.”
Camp was also a positive experience for Spencer. According to Sheri, life isn’t always easy for Spencer when it comes to having an older brother with autism. However, Sheri explained that camp brought her boys closer together and reinforced core values they already teach in their home.
“Camp helped them to grow spiritually and to bring them closer together,” Sheri said. “Spencer has it rough sometimes, and we’ve been talking a lot about forgiveness. At Doe River Gorge, they focused a lot on forgiveness, and it helped them be able to work together more.”
Steve and Sheri serve as the Unicoi County contacts and parent advocates for the Autism Society of America and have spoken many times with legislators regarding autism in the area. Sheri said that because of the stress of having an autistic child, around 75 percent of couples with autistic children wind up divorcing. However, she said that scholarship programs like those offered by NFS and accommodating and welcoming environments like Doe River Gorge make life easier on those families.
“There are so many challenges when you have an autistic child,” Sheri said. “(The NFS scholarship) is one wonderful way to keep families together – any family – to help them bond.”
Steve said that in the future he hopes to enter a father-son challenge this fall at Doe River Gorge with Sebastian and Spencer.
“It teaches us to work together and helps as far as showing (Sebastian) how to work with others. It will help him to understand how to be dependable.”
Steve and Sheri say that the week spent at Doe River Gorge has been a blessing to Sebastian and their family, as a whole.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do this without (NFS),” Steve said. “We give lots of thanks to NFS for making this happen and to Doe River for all their accommodations. They have an awesome staff, and I highly recommend it.”