Sometimes, Faith and Hope Boone curl up into balls and stay inside their Niagara Falls home on summer days.
Each of the 13-year-old twin sisters are on the autism spectrum. And neighborhood kids bully them.
A youth recently threw rocks at the girls while they played in their backyard, which backs up onto railroad tracks filled with rocks.
School can be worse. They just graduated from Maple Avenue Elementary School, where they had two friends.
“They called me fat and everything,” Faith said of the school’s bullies. “They didn’t like how I talk.”
But this past school year, Faith and Hope made the best of sixth grade.
The bullies still taunted them, but the two began the school year with new resolve, all because of their experience last year at Cradle Beach, a summer camp in Angola for children with special needs and those from low-income families.
“I stayed positive,” Faith said of her time in sixth grade. “I can keep a smile on my face. I would be glum all the time. Now, I have a smile on my face because I’m thinking about the friends I’m making at camp.”
Hope and Faith kept reminding themselves they would return to Cradle Beach this summer.
It’s a safe place where popular kids don’t leave anyone out, a place full of peers who understand each other.
This summer Hope and Faith brought along their 9-year-old brother, Cody, who struggles with an auditory processing disorder. He also gets bullied.
Their father, Jason Boone, said the school bullying has turned “really severe.”
“They deal with a lot of bullying because they’re different than other kids, and at Cradle Beach, that’s not so much of an issue,” Jason Boone said. “Everyone comes in on an even slate.”
At camp, the siblings enjoy swimming, arts and crafts and playing outside with their friends. If their peers ever get sad or homesick, they can empathize.
“I can feel their emotions, like how they feel,” Faith said of her friends at Cradle Beach. “Like, they don’t want to do something so they won’t talk or anything.”
“Because we feel it all the time,” Cody said.
“Yeah, because people don’t want to play with us,” Hope added.
As they sat on a bench under the sun Friday afternoon at camp, their first full day of the session, they reminisced about the “popular kids” at school – the ones who wear “really fancy” clothes like Aeropostale, Gap and Justice. That expectation doesn’t exist at Cradle Beach. Cody wore a white T-shirt and an orange bandana. The twins wore sweatpants.
As Cody joined his male peers for basketball, the girls walked over to the arts and crafts shelter and laughed with their best friends, Gracie and Aliyah, as they played with clay and painted Christmas trees and paper plates.
Youngsters with special needs and those from economically disadvantaged families tend to empathize with one another, says Cradle Beach Director Tim Boling. He said the campers often form lifelong friendships. It is one of the few camps in the country to integrate campers with and without disabilities and include kids from low-income backgrounds.
The summer camp, split into five sessions that run until Aug. 23, will host about 750 youngsters, most from Western New York, by the end of summer.
If and when bullying does occur, Cradle Beach has a zero-tolerance policy. The camp’s director of youth services, Bonnie Brusk, said campers have, in the past, been kicked out for bullying.
She begins each session with a speech about acceptance and announces that “abnormal is normal here.” And by the end of each session, Brusk hopes more youngsters leave camp ready to turn around the societal problems behind bullying.
“Instead of being kids that mock these kids at school, now they know more about these children because they’ve had the 10 days with them,” Brusk said. “They can go home and they can be the biggest defenders of these kids.”