‘It’s just fun’ — 20 kids with autism set sail on Lake Michigan during free summer camp

The camp, in its second year in Chicago, teaches the first-time sailors the parts of the boat, water safety rules, knot-tying and how to maneuver a boat and work its sails.

SHARE ‘It’s just fun’ — 20 kids with autism set sail on Lake Michigan during free summer camp
Sam Poncher, 16, gives a thumbs up while riding a sail boat on Lake Michigan.

Sam Poncher, 16, gives a thumbs-up while riding a sailboat on Lake Michigan during Spectrum Sailing Camp Wednesday for youths with autism.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

From tying knots to trimming sails, 20 kids with autism this week are learning the ins and outs of sailing on Lake Michigan.

The three-day program, running through Thursday at the Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club in Montrose Harbor, is organized by Spectrum Sailing, a nonprofit that operates camps in eight U.S. cities for kids ages 10 to 17 with autism. The camp is back in Chicago for the second year.

Scott Herman, founder of Spectrum Sailing, got the idea for the program when he couldn’t find a sailing camp that would take his eldest son Daniel, who has autism.

Five years ago, Herman, who lives in Charleston, South Carolina, created a sailing camp for kids with autism. It was an instant success: 70 kids signed up for the first camp, and only 10 spots were available.

“I quickly realized I had figured something out,” said Herman, an avid sailor since college.

Scott Herman, founder of Spectrum Sailing, rides a motorboat on Lake Michigan while keeping an eye on kids sailing during Spectrum Sailing Camp, Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The free camp for kids with autism teaches kids how to sail.

Scott Herman, founder of Spectrum Sailing, keeps an eye on kids sailing Wednesday during Spectrum Sailing Camp for youths with autism.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

After success in Charleston, Herman founded Spectrum Sailing last year and took the camps to two other cities: Chicago and Sarasota, Florida.

This year, the program returned to Chicago, Sarasota and Charleston and started in five other cities, including New Orleans and Toledo, Ohio. About 160 kids will participate this year in the camps.

Ree Grossman says sailing helps calm her 16-year-old son Spencer.

“This is such an amazing program. There’s not a lot of things like this for these kids,” Grossman said. “My son just gets to be a kid for a few hours.”

Spencer, who is nonverbal, relaxes on the water, Grossman said. It’s his happy place.

Spencer Grossman (in green), 16, rides a sail boat on Lake Michigan with other kids and volunteer Jessica Marcus during Spectrum Sailing Camp, Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The free camp for kids with autism teaches kids how to sail. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Spencer Grossman (in green), 16, rides in a sailboat Wednesday on Lake Michigan with other kids and volunteer Jessica Marcus.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“We’re building up their self-esteem,” Herman said. “It’s amazing the stories I hear from parents about the things they try for the first time after sailing camp, like riding a bike or trying different foods.”

The camps are free and rely on donations. Lake Michigan Sail Racing Federation is the sole donor for the camp in Chicago.

The camp is structured like a traditional sailing program. The class covers the parts of the boat, water safety rules, knot-tying and how to maneuver a boat and work its sails.

One of the sailors, 10-year-old Ian Melotte, quickly mastered tying knots during the camp. This week is the first time he’s been on a sailboat, and he got to steer on Wednesday.

“Being out there on the boats is great. I love to sail. It’s just fun,” Ian said.

Scott Herman, founder of Spectrum Sailing, teaches Ian Melotte, 10, how to tie a square knot during Spectrum Sailing Camp at the Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club, Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The free camp for kids with autism teaches kids how to sail. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Scott Herman, founder of Spectrum Sailing, teaches Ian Melotte, 10, how to tie a square knot Wednesday during Spectrum Sailing Camp at the Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The kids start the day with a quick lesson in a classroom and then take what they’ve learned out on the water. On Wednesday, the first-time sailors learned the points of sail, meaning the directions a boat can move according to the wind. The kids will learn to tack and jibe — ways to turn the boat into or away from the wind — on the last day of camp.

“We don’t just take the kids out for a ride, it’s really a camp where they learn the skills and understand why the boat works and how it works,” Herman said.

While the camp is structured like a regular sailing lesson for kids, a few additions set it apart. The instructors go through neurodiversity training, and volunteers tend to be people who care about working with kids on the autism spectrum, Herman said. He also sought advice from autism specialists and educational experts to tailor the curriculum to the kids’ needs.

“We built this safe space,” Herman said. “When they’re in our environment, it’s already really welcoming and accepting. Everyone is able to be themselves.”

Blake Belcher, 10, receives a high-five during Spectrum Sailing Camp at the Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club, Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The free camp for kids with autism teaches kids how to sail. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Blake Belcher, 10, receives a high-five Wednesday during Spectrum Sailing Camp at the Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Jayme Novotney, a camp instructor for the second year and a Chicago Public Schools middle school teacher, said he focuses on making sure the kids feel confident on the boat, whether they’re steering, trimming the sails or just enjoying the ride.

“It’s great to see them get on the water and feel comfortable,” Novotney said. “They don’t get a lot of opportunities like this.”

The program has grown faster than Herman expected. He’s had to turn down offers from yacht clubs in other cities to host camps, and he gets more applications than open spots.

“It’s awesome to know that people want us here, and they want to help this population,” Herman said. “And that they want to give these kids a chance to get out on the water.”

Aidan Gallo, a 10-year-old camper, thrives out on the water. He proudly steered his group’s boat and plans on continuing to sail after camp.

“It’s encouraged me to get my own sailboat, not a big one but a small one,” Aidan said. “Then I can take my friends out sailing.”

Kids ride a sail boat on Lake Michigan during Spectrum Sailing Camp, Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The free camp for kids with autism teaches kids how to sail. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Kids ride in a sailboat Wednesday on Lake Michigan during Spectrum Sailing Camp.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Nicholas Sunderlage, 15, steers the sail boat on Lake Michigan during Spectrum Sailing Camp, Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The free camp for kids with autism teaches kids how to sail. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Nicholas Sunderlage, 15, steers a sailboat Wednesday on Lake Michigan during Spectrum Sailing Camp.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Volunteer Jessica Marcus throws a rope before docking at the Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club during Spectrum Sailing Camp, Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The free camp for kids with autism teaches kids how to sail. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Volunteer Jessica Marcus throws a rope before docking at the Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club during Spectrum Sailing Camp.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Lydia Stiglich, 11, steers a sail boat on Lake Michigan during Spectrum Sailing Camp, Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The free camp for kids with autism teaches kids how to sail. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Lydia Stiglich, 11, steers a sailboat Wednesday on Lake Michigan during Spectrum Sailing Camp.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Aidan Gallo (in blue life jacket), 10, waits as the boat prepares to dock at the Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club during Spectrum Sailing Camp, Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The free camp for kids with autism teaches kids how to sail. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Aidan Gallo (in blue life jacket), 10, waits as the boat docks at the Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club during Spectrum Sailing Camp.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Lydia Stiglich, 11, smiles on a sail boat on Lake Michigan during Spectrum Sailing Camp, Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The free camp for kids with autism teaches kids how to sail. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Lydia Stiglich, 11, smiles Wednesday during Spectrum Sailing Camp on Lake Michigan.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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