Ready to meet summer 'Pals'

Amie Lee's arms and shoulders clenched as she spoke about the tension she once felt whenever her daughter, Paige, interacted with the world.

Paige, 12, of Richland, has hypotonic cerebral palsy, a form of the disease marked by diminished muscle tones that can give the person a floppy, ragdoll-like appearance.

Paige also has a seizure disorder and is prone to broken bones, her mother said.

So as the mother to a fragile child, Amie Lee became protective -- perhaps overly so, she said. She didn't like other people taking care of Paige. She didn't like letting Paige out of her sight.

But constant vigilance takes a toll, and a few years ago Lee needed a break. That's when a friend told her about Partners 'n' Pals.

"I didn't know it existed," Lee said.

Partners 'n' Pals is a summer day camp program run by The Arc of Tri-Cities that pairs up children, teens and young adults ages 7 to 21 who have developmental disabilities with neurotypical peers ages 11 and up for six weeks of activities and summer fun that includes horseback riding, swimming, watching airplanes and going to the movies.

"She was a rock star and she loved it," Lee said of Paige's first time participating. "She gets weeks of nothing but 'We accept who you are,' and 'We love who you are.' It's changed how I am about the whole situation immensely."

Paige, now a three-year veteran of Partners 'n' Pals, bounced in a chair at The Arc building in Richland and gushed enthusiasm for this year's program, which starts Monday.

She was especially excited to see Brad, one of The Arc's staff members, who has become one of Paige's friends. But she would really like one of her classmates from Carmichael Middle School to volunteer.

Donna Tracy, The Arc's advocacy and recreation manager, said volunteers are the key to making Partners 'n' Pals work, and that it isn't too late for people to sign up either to be a peer volunteer, a teen Leader in Training, or an adult who wants to chaperone, offer an activity, or bake pizzas for participants.

Volunteers can contribute for the entire six weeks, or just for a day, Tracy said.

Nichelle Wallskog, Richland site director for the day camp, said she started as a volunteer at 14 and so enjoyed the connections she made with participants that she stayed with it as an adult.

"Our job is to help them have fun," Wallskog said. "It's addicting. It's so reward -- emotionally rewarding."

Participation also can be emotionally rewarding for participants with disabilities, like 10-year-old Grant Hoover of Richland, who has autism.

Grant's mother, Kathleen Hoover, said he started going when he was 7, and she can see a difference in his confidence and comfort levels in social settings.

He even has started learning how to flirt with girls, she said.

But one difference in particular has been meaningful to Grant's father Geoff Hoover -- his son's new-found ability to accept a hug.

"He used to be a kid we couldn't touch a lot. Now he's used to me doing that," Hoover said. "I think it's because of Partners 'n' Pals. They're always giving big hugs."