The Great Big Art Mash: campers with special needs let loose with art

Don’t expect to find a paintbrush at the local annual arts camp, Great Big Art Mash.

By Jordan Wolfe

“The biggest thing is they don’t get to let loose with art,” said Helen Hill, director of GBAM, a day camp specifically created for students with special needs. “They paint with anything but a brush,” she said. “They paint with toothbrushes, bottle caps, beads; it frees them up and frees us up.”

The fifth annual camp, held from July 18 through July 22 at the Bay City Arts Center, had 16 campers from both Neah-Kah-Nie and Tillamook school districts. Hill added the campers were joined by almost as many trained staff.


Painting, however, is not the only activity on the menu at GBAM.

Hill said the staff lead a multitude of art-related projects during the five-day camp. An outside canopy featured a table full of clay; several refrigerator boxes from Roby’s were utilized by the campers to build anything from houses to a robot suit; Up to 15 kids gathered around a giant parachute to launch water balloons; miniature boats were built to float on the creek at Bay City Park; embrace their inner-thespian with music, theatre and drumming and the students also took a trip to the park to express their athleticism.


“They play ‘imaginary basketball’ and don’t have to worry about making baskets,” Hill said, adding the staff that play with them cheer and encourage the campers whenever they successfully shoot an imaginary basketball into the hoop.

However, before any of the day’s festivities begin, Hill said every morning the staff welcomes everyone by joining in a circle, providing campers and staff with fancy punch glasses full of water and toast to friendship.


A staple of most camps has found its way to GBAM as well: food.

“One of the main things that is very important to us is a sit down meal with really healthy food,” Hill said. “We eat family style and pass the food around. It’s vegan, gluten-free and all home cooked. It’s almost as much of an activity as the art.”

Funding for GBAM comes from the Mudd Nick Foundation and includes all transportation for the students, according to Debbie Sherman, special needs project coordinator for the Mudd Nick Foundation.


“Mudd Nick’s vision is to give parents a respite and give kids a safe place to be,” Sherman said, herself a parent of four children with Down’s Syndrome.

“It’s just a win-win,” she said, adding that her kids have a great time from the moment they step onto the bus.


On Friday evening, the last day of camp, Sherman said parents, grandparents and friends are invited to a complimentary dinner and overview of the week, along with a musical presentation.

“They just bloom,” Hill said. “Kids with Down’s Syndrome or autism don’t get the spotlight in school. When they’re in the spotlight here, they sense it and they don’t hold back.”

She added saying goodbye at the end of the week is the most difficult.

“When the kids perform, so many parents watch with tears in their eyes to see their kids celebrated.”