Thirteen years ago, Aaron and Kerri Bly of rural Kenesaw brought their first son, Trae, home from the hospital along with big dreams.
But, as Trae grew, they noticed that he didn’t develop as fast as other kids. He didn’t walk or communicate until age two and a half. When Trae was 3 years old, they found out why. Their son has autism.
Autism hasn’t dampened their dreams for Trae. In fact, autism has empowered them to dream even bigger. They started the Kids and Dreams Foundation with a mission to provide hope and resources to families and kids facing autism, bullying or other challenges and to help kids of all ages and abilities learn to dream big.
They are accomplishing that mission through an annual autism conference, speaking at schools around the state and through Operation Shine Camp, a three-day summer camp that helps kids with autism learn that they can still dream big. The camp motto is, “You cannot blend in….when you’re meant to SHINE!”
Finding Autism Answers
After Trae’s diagnosis, Aaron and Kerri tried to learn all they could about autism.
“We were glad to start getting some answers and get to where we could help him,” Aaron said.
Autism is a mental condition characterized by difficulty communicating and forming relationships. People with autism may perform repetitive behaviors, have trouble with speech and nonverbal communication, and they often have unique strengths and differences.
The Blys learned that one in 68 children are diagnosed with autism and that the condition is four or five times more prevalent in boys than girls. Typically, kids with autism have sensory issues such as being irritated by getting a haircut or putting on socks. And, they have an activity that they repeat and may become obsessed about. For Trae, that activity is bowling or playing a piano or keyboard.
When Trae was 5, a doctor told the Blys that Trae would never improve.
“We no longer saw that doctor,” Aaron said.
The Blys eventually found a doctor that had experience with autism, and with his help, Trae improved greatly from ages 5-10. They started a gluten-free and dairy-free diet and gave him supplements and vitamins, which helped him progress. They learned so much in their research that they wanted to share it with others.
“Once you get that diagnosis, sometimes you feel isolated,” Aaron said. “What do I do now? Where do I go? We were glad to get the diagnosis so we could start researching. For some families, it takes them a long time to adjust to the fact that they got the diagnosis because everyone wants that neurotypical kid that’s going to play for the Huskers and be a doctor or whatever.”
Aaron said parents can become so beat down that they lose hope and don’t know where to turn.
That’s the motivation behind Aaron and Kerri’s desire to start the Kids and Dreams Foundation.
Starting A Foundation And Growing A Family
The Blys started the groundwork for the Kids and Dreams Foundation in 2013, despite being in the midst of raising five young children. Trae was their first son, and he came to their family through adoption. In 2008, the Blys adopted four siblings that they had parented through foster care. Trae is now the middle child of their five children ranging in ages from 8-17.
Once they shared their ideas about the foundation, help randomly emerged. A lawyer volunteered to help with the paperwork required to become a foundation. A web designer volunteered to create a website. A board member who was taking graduate classes created the foundation’s strategic plan as part of a class assignment.
After a year of behind-the-scenes work, the foundation started off strong in 2014 and has already made a huge impact.
Aaron and his volunteers have raised the public’s awareness of autism by speaking at school sporting events across the state with Dream Big Awareness outings. They are trying to spread a hopeful message that no one deserves to be bullied and that anyone can make a difference.
The foundation has brought Michigan State basketball player Anthony Ianni to more than 30 schools, three universities and more than 15,000 students during the past three years with its Relentless Tour. Ianni has autism, was bullied as a child and was once told by doctors that he would never be successful.
“His message is to make a difference in the community and provide hope for those kids who are struggling,” Aaron said. “And, he also wants to encourage kids to go out and make a difference in their communities.”
Aaron said that 65 percent or more of kids with autism have been bullied. His hope is that autism awareness will be followed with understanding and acceptance.
The foundation also hosts the annual Kids and Dreams Autism Conference that connects parents and families of kids affected by autism with information and resources.
Last year was the third conference, and it attracted 200 attendees. The 2018 conference on August 24 in Kearney will feature Dr. Temple Grandin, one of the first individuals to publicly share her personal experience with autism. She is an American professor of animal science at Colorado State University, a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior and an autism spokesperson. The conference is expected to draw 1,000 people.
The Kids and Dreams Foundation also hosts the annual Fairways and Greens golf tournament to raise funds for Operation Shine Camp and other outreach efforts. This year’s event will be July 16 at Awarii Dunes golf course south of Kearney.
Operation Shine Camp
The Kids and Dreams Foundation’s signature event came about after the Blys older children attended a summer camp. Trae couldn’t attend that camp, but he wanted to go to camp, too. So, the Blys asked the camp director if they could rent their camp to do a program for kids with autism. They had six months to get ready for the first camp in the summer of 2014. That first year, 24 kids attended with the help of 60 volunteers.
The three-day program features traditional camp activities for kids ages 7-12 who have autism. The camp takes place at Covenant Cedars Bible Camp near Hordville, between Central City and Aurora, and has attracted children from more than 50 communities.
“We do all sorts of things,” Aaron said. “We have zip-lining, horseback riding, crate stacking, archery, rock climbing, fishing, swimming, arts and crafts, robotics. Our whole purpose it to make it a traditional camp experience with their peers.”
The camp begins with a volunteer training on Friday. The campers arrive at 3 p.m. on Friday and leave at 2 p.m. on Sunday.
“We have three pretty simple goals,” Aaron said. “Obviously, we want the kids to have as much fun as possible, to keep them safe and to allow the parents a weekend of respite. Most of these kids have never been away from home or away from mom and dad, especially for a whole weekend.”
At the end of the camp weekend, they see lots of smiles from campers, parents and volunteers.
“The crazy thing is that it affects the volunteers as much as the campers,” Aaron said. “We’ve heard so many stories about how this camp is the most profound thing people have ever experienced. A few of them have changed their majors to special education after the camp.”
They also hear success stories from campers: One camper broke the record for crate stacking at camp, and it boosted his confidence so much that it gave him the courage to play with neighborhood kids back home, which he had never done before.
The camp and the foundation’s work has impacted the Blys’ own son.
“I think it’s helped him understand more about autism,” Aaron said. “It’s helped him realize that other kids are like him. It’s helped us be able to talk to him about some of the things that he’s different at, how’s he’s different but how he sees the world in a refreshing new way and that he is able to do great things.”
Trae, who is in middle school at Shelton, made the honor roll this year and is enjoying his first season of junior high track.
This year’s Operation Shine Camp is June 8-10. Due to space and volunteer requirements, the camp is limited to 40 kids. About 130 volunteers are needed for those 40 kids. The 2018 camp has reached its limit of campers, but more volunteers are needed.
If you would like to volunteer, donate to help defray the costs of volunteers to help at the camp or find out about placing a child on the camp waiting list, contact Aaron at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the Kids and Dreams Foundation and its programs and events, visit the website at www.kidsanddreams.org or find them on Facebook.