Dream Camp – A Labor of Love for UNCG

Posted on August 08, 2023

Youth in Dream Camp t-shirts raise hands to participate in a classroom while counselors look on smiling.
Connor Bunton finds a place to be himself at Dream Camp.

A camp for children on the autism spectrum was once just a dream for families who wanted their children to participate in summer experiences like their peers.  Fifteen years ago, the concept was born from caring parents, raised by knowledgeable faculty in UNC Greensboro’s (UNCG) Department of Psychology, and funded by generous alumni.  

Now after many summers of Dream Camp at UNCG, the project has created ripple effects. Not only is the outreach impacting campers and their families, but Dream Camp has become a wonderful example of how Spartans use their passions and know-how in service to others. 

From Dream to Reality  

UNCG Psychology Professor Susan Keane loves to tell the story of Dream Camp’s origin.  

It was 2008, and Keane was supervising a social skills group within the UNCG Psychology Clinic when she first learned about the need for a summer camp for children with autism. A parent explained that children on the spectrum, like her own, miss out on the summer camp experience due to bullying, anxiety, and difficulty regulating emotions.  

Two women in Dream Camp t-shirts smile in a gym.
Doctoral student Sabine Huber and Dr. Susan Keane supervise Dream Campers.

“Kelly Whelan was an amazing advocate for her child,” recalls Keane. When Keane explained to Whelan that there were a few impediments to getting the camp set up in 3 months, Whelan contacted golfer Davis Love III, who made a huge donation. 

“At that point I couldn’t say no,” said Keane. “There were no barriers.”  

With initial funding secured, Keane worked to design a day camp that would fulfill the dreams of families with children, aged eight to eighteen, on the autism spectrum. She combined social skills classes with arts and crafts, physical activity sessions, and presentations on practical life skills. She called on UNCG professors, coaches, and alumni to bring special interests to the campers.  

At the end of the first summer of Dream Camp, two teenage campers spoke about how important the experience was for them because they never felt like they fit in at other camps. “From then on, that was all the motivation I needed to keep Dream Camp going,” states Keane. 

Building K’Nex-ions 

Later, Keane spoke to the University’s advancement council and caught the eye of Spartan alumna Candy Bernard. Her husband’s family founded the K’Nex toy company. K’Nex building sets had become particularly popular among children on the autism spectrum, so Bernard approached Keane about donations. “Bernard has been a source of constant financial support,” Keane emphasized. “Dream Camp became a special passion for her.” 

As Keane and her colleague, Dr. Rosemery Nelson-Gray, worked to make the most of donations, they also reached out to students to staff the camp with counselors. “It was a natural fit,” explains Nelson-Gray. “Graduate students in our psychology department need practical experience, so we tapped them to help us develop curriculum and lead camp activities. When a camper’s emotions run high at camp, the grad students can practice therapy skills they learn in their classes.” 

The specialized training of the camp’s staff makes all the difference for parents. 

College student with her arm around a child, explains something to him in the Esports Arena.
Psychology doctoral student, Sabine Huber, talks through an issue with a camper.

“Connor finally has a place to be himself,” says Carrie Bunton, mother of a 9-year-old camper. “The consistent lessons are so important. Connor gets frustrated easily. But instead of getting kicked out, Dream Camp counselors teach him how to handle his frustrations, so he can take those skills and apply them at school on his own.” 

Rachel Suresky and Sabine Huber are fourth- and fifth-year psychology doctoral students who have participated in Dream Camp each summer since their enrollment.   

“We are part of the process from beginning to end,” explains Suresky. “We begin as early as March by taking referrals and assessing campers’ interests and needs. We help set up the camp schedules, serve as therapists during camp, and analyze how things went after camp is over. It’s a unique experience.” 

Huber especially enjoys planning the sessions with the needs of the campers in mind. “As therapists, we are often adapting sessions to a camper’s interests in order to camouflage lessons within activities that they like,” she says. “We try to meet the therapeutic needs of the kids but also fulfill the campers’ fun needs.”  

Spartans in Service 

Professor kneels to talk to a young boy at a desk in a classroom.
Dr. John Borchert discusses video gaming skills with a young camper.

Perhaps the most unexpected benefit from Dream Camp has been the way it channels UNCG alumni, students, and faculty for service.  

This summer, UNCG religious studies lecturer and academic lead for gaming and esports, John Borchert gave an esports presentation at Dream Camp and led a tour of UNCG’s Esports Arena. His presentation engaged the campers by questioning them about skills that make them good at video games – like good memory, sportsmanship, and patience – and challenging them to use those same skills to make the world better. The campers of all ages immediately ‘got it’.  

One teenage camper illustrated how he practiced patience when he said, “Teaching my grandma to play Mario Kart is actually harder than the game itself!” 

As a teacher and video game enthusiast, Borchert loves sharing his passions with local youth: “The campers’ enthusiasm is infectious. The side conversations and follow-up chats after my visit assure me that we are doing something right here. We are igniting new thinkers by meeting them where they are.” 

Giving Back Inspires New Goals 

Soccer player coaches a child in a gym.
Ethan Conley coaches a camper during a soccer game.

Ethan Conley, a UNCG men’s soccer player and psychology major , has also been energetic about helping with Dream Camp. He draws upon his childhood experience of being diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome at age 13 to relate to the campers.  

“I was fortunate to quickly learn tools to manage my tics, but I understand what it’s like to struggle with being different and how to fit in with my peers,” Conley explains.  

Conley brought all of his teammates for the June 2023 camp. “When Dr. Keane explained that the camp is for kids who have trouble communicating, I wanted to show how our team works together even though we may speak different languages. For us, volunteering is a way to say thank you to a community that supports us, while serving a special population that has trouble with things that we take for granted every day.” 

Conley has not only fulfilled many of his soccer dreams at UNCG, but he has also explored academic interests and personal passions through volunteer gigs like this one – all of which have led him to a pre-med track.  

“My Tourette’s diagnosis gave me a huge empathy for people who experience the world differently, especially through the lens of neurological syndromes,” says Conley. “Soccer brought me to UNCG and gives me a platform to give back, like at Dream Camp. I discovered how good it feels to see these kids smile and enjoy this beautiful game. All these experiences have led me to consider a medical career in which I would constantly be of service as a physician.”  

Young man high fives a teenager in a gym with soccer balls in the background.
Soccer player Ethan Conley high fives Francesco Serrano after a game.

A Dream Come True 

From knowledgeable psychologists and generous donors to faculty and students who volunteer their time, Dream Camp has become a labor of love in the fifteen years it has served local children. And no one appreciates the effort and ingenuity of the Spartans who keep the camp running more than the campers and their families.  

“These people are changing lives,” says Miguel Serrano, father of 12-year-old camper Francesco. “My son has learned skills here that he doesn’t get in school or other camps. Since his first Dream Camp experience last summer, his behavior has changed and he’s just happier. I am so grateful to Dr. Keane and Dr. Nelson-Gray for what Dream Camp has done for my son. He can’t wait to come back next summer.”  

Story by Becky Deakins, University Communications. 
Photography by Sean Norona, University Communications. 

College student with her arm around a child, explains something to him in the Esports Arena.

Be an Advocate for Children with Neurodivergent Personalities.


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