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Cradle Beach provides friendships, independence for longtime camper

When Nathanael Harden arrived at Cradle Beach for the first time six years ago, his parents weren’t sure what to expect.

The Harden family knew of the camp in Angola and what it provided – it specializes in summer activity for children with special needs – but were hesitant to send their son. Each year they would put it off, until one year they decided to just give it a chance.

“The first year was a little scary and I think Harold was ready to bring him home,” Andrea Harden said jokingly, referring to Nathanael’s father. “But the changes in him each year, Nathanael is just thrilled.”

Nathanael is nonverbal and was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth and autism when he was 7. This will now be his sixth and final year at Cradle Beach, a nonprofit summer program in Angola that hosts children with disabilities or who come from low-income families.

The 16-year-old enjoys swimming and playing soccer with the other campers and counselors. So much so, that when Andrea, Harold, and sister Natalie went to pick him up after his first year, they hardly recognized him from the incredible amount of time he spent in the pool.

“After the first year at Cradle Beach, we were excited to pick him up, but we didn’t recognize him because he was probably four shades darker,” Andrea recalled.

Nathanael, along with more than 140 other campers, arrived Saturday to kick-off the second session of the summer at the camp. Cradle Beach staffers will host roughly 775 total campers during the five sessions this summer.

“In some ways, it’s like a lifesaver for him. When you have a child with special needs who can’t communicate as well, there’s so many activities that unfortunately he might be left out of,” Andrea said. “This gives him an opportunity to participate fully, in a safe environment, enjoy things that he might not otherwise enjoy, and to me it means the world.”

Natalie Harden, Nathanael’s 17-year-old sister, says she enjoys seeing her brother be able to have the same kind of social life she does – even if for a short period of time.

“It’s definitely nice because I know I have a large social life. I go out for choirs, spend time with friends, and he doesn’t always get to do that, and so seeing him come here, have friends to hang out with, go and play soccer with, it really makes me feel better that he has something to do too,” she said.

Even though this is Nathanael’s last summer, the Harden family hopes programs like these continue and grow so that other children are able to have similar experiences.

“If we want to have strong effective children – even with special needs – become strong, effective adults with special needs, we can’t take away programs like this,” she said. “This is what helps them to grow and become who they are.”

Donations to Cradle Beach can be sent to Cradle Beach Inc., c/o Buffalo Evening News Charity Fund, 1 News Plaza, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or made online at CradleBeach.org email: jreiland@buffnews.com