Emily was diagnosed at a very early age as having a neurological problem, more commonly referred to as mentally handicapped.
“As a result she spent all of her days in school in Special Ed,” said her dad, Ford Sasser, president of Rio Bank. “Unlike when I was in school, today they try to mainstream a lot of the Special Ed students. My daughter was capable of participating in choir and PE. Those were the two areas of school where she participated with the Regular Ed kids. Not only was that good for my daughter, it was probably good for the students in Regular Ed because they became friends with some of the Special Ed students, which we never were able to growing up.”
Those with mental disabilities are able to stay in school until they are 21 years of age. After that they are on their own, so to speak. Until now there were no specialized organizations for them.
“We saw the problem when she got out of school,” said Sasser. “There was not much social activity or interaction with her friends. We know that families and caregivers have to work during the day. These young adults are too old to go to child daycare, so they go to adult day-care, originally established to assist aging adults, or they sit at home with limited outside contact.”
Realizing there weren’t many programs available for their younger daughter, Ford and his wife, Abbie, came up with the idea of a camp for the mentally handicapped young adults in the area.
“Emily’s older sister, Lauren, came up with the name C.A.M.P. University,” Sasser said. “The initials stand for Can Achieve Maximum Potential. She put the word University behind it because so many of the students graduating are talking about going off to college and the Special Ed students didn’t have anything like that to talk about. So we created a vehicle for these young adults to look forward to attending once they were out of high school.”
Started two years ago after Emily graduated, the Sassers have C.A.M.P. University incorporated and have obtained a 501c3 status as a non-profit organization. Their mission statement is: C.A.M.P. University provides opportunities for social, artistic, sporting and philanthropic activities for Special Needs Young Adults in the McAllen area.
After school ended, Ford and Abbie started gathering Special Ed students to do social things together.
“It might be going out to eat, going to the movies, any number of activities,” said Sasser. “They participate in Special Olympics and go to the Palm Valley Animal Center to work with the dogs. We have parties at Christmas, Valentine’s and Thanksgiving. They like to dance, go bowling and have gone to sporting events. Last summer we took them to South Padre Island and spent the day at the Schlitterbaun which they enjoyed. They’ve been to Quinta Mazatlan for various nature presentations, the Butterfly Park in Mission and have won First Place at the International Museum of Art and Science Christmas Tree Forest for the last two years. And these are just some of their activities!”
“Depending on activities we have planned, we sometimes get together two or three times a week or sometimes we might go a couple of weeks and not get together,” he said. Activities are planned for after 6 p.m and weekends to allow the involvement of parents - a big part of their success - and cost is little or nothing.
At the moment they meet at various locations. However, their ultimate goal is to have a physical location where they could have a staff person to help organize activities and take this as far down the road as they can.
“Our population of Special Needs young adults down here is huge,” Ford said. “Every year our schools are turning more and more of these students out of school and they are lost. There is nothing left for them to do. However, with C.A.M.P. University, there is help.”
Emily is lucky. With Lambchop tucked under her arm, some days she heads off to the bank with her dad, performing her own special job. She has made friends with business people all over town and has an active life.
“My daughter has opportunities and enjoys a world that’s bigger than the four walls of her room or our house. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for a lot of these wonderful, young people,” said Ford.
Currently in the process of setting up the board, Ford is taking C.A.M.P. University to the next step - the public.
“I’m also trying to run a bank. This is full time work trying to get C.A.M.P. University up and running so it’s moving at a snail’s pace, but, it is moving,” he said. “We’re trying this year to increase awareness of what we’re doing by speaking at various clubs and trying to let people know this is out there. We have a lot of very generous people in town. A lot of people want to help, they just don’t know how. So, I’m trying to provide them the information on what to do.
“If people want to help they can get in touch with me at 631-7890. Whether it’s a monetary donation or whether it’s volunteering time, volunteering time is just as valuable to us as somebody writing a check.”
Starting with their existing 28 participants, Ford and Abbie hope to make C.A.M.P. University a solid foundation these young people can always look forward to.
“I don’t want C.A.M.P. University to be about Emily,” Ford said. “I want C.A.M.P. University to be about all those young adults so they can be themselves, have fun, be involved in the community and be the very best they can be.”