By Dustin Turner

Camp Wonderland’s showcase was an intensely moving experience for Scott Seidl. He says, “In a time in our world when it seems there is so much darkness, this gives you hope and brings you some happiness.”

Scott is the executive director and artistic director of the Augusta Players. Camp Wonderland, which recently completed its third year, is a summer camp that exposes children on the autism spectrum to two weeks of music, drama, movement and visual arts.

Autism is a neurological and developmental disorder that often makes it difficult for children to communicate and form relationships with other people. Each of the 32 campers on the autism spectrum (ages 7-21) is paired with a “buddy” from the Junior Players. They spend the two weeks working with teachers who specialize in arts and special education, then put on a showcase to others can see their accomplishments.

“This is a transformational program for the campers and the Junior Players themselves,” Scott says.

Camp Wonderland has obvious effects on the campers, but the volunteer “buddies” from the Junior Players benefit, as well. “These 16- and 17-year-old Junior Players are going into this camp not knowing what to expect,” Scott says, “then, after two weeks, they decide their career path is going to be in special education.”

Scott says some of the Junior Players become friends with the campers. “They talk to them even after the camp and invite them more mainstream activities they might not otherwise have access to.”

The camp has lasting effects on the teachers and adult volunteers, too. “Everyone walks away with a wider vision of the world, with a better understanding of how we are all similar, not different,” Scott says.

Because Camp Wonderland is for young people with autism, organizers work diligently to provide a structured, consistent experience. “We want to make sure all of our processes make sense with how the children operate,” Scott says.

The 2018 Camp Wonderland was the third one for Augusta Players, but Scott has been with the Players less than two years.

“This past summer was my first summer,” he explains. “I gotta tell you, I was so moved at that showcase. I was not only moved by the performances of these campers, but the care and the love of the Junior Players toward them. They had only met two weeks earlier. Our outreach programs are amazing. But the two weeks of this program are my favorite of the entire year.”

Running a two-week summer camp involves some operating costs, but Augusta Players would rather be generous than make a profit. Even though there is a tuition to offset operating costs, no campers are ever turned away because they can’t meet the financial obligation.

Camp Wonderland has been so successful that it operates at capacity every year, and there is a waiting list. Organizers would like to expand the program, but operating at a financial loss can make that a difficult goal to reach.

That’s where Ryan Abel comes in. Ryan, a local singer, songwriter and musician, has been involved with the Augusta Players for 12 years.

“I’ve been wanting to do something to benefit the Players for a long time,” Ryan says. “Scott brought up the camp, and once he told me about it, I decided it was what I wanted to do.”

Ryan organized the Goin’ South Concert to benefit Camp Wonderland. The Nov. 23 concert at the Miller Theatre will feature local musicians and guest singers performing a lineup of Southern rock favorites from Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, 38 Special, Marshall Tucker Band and more. The core band features: Keith Jenkins, Michael Vincent Baideme, Ronnie Hill, Brooks Andrews, T. Keith Davis, Russell Jarrett and Ryan Abel. Special guests include: Bethany Davis, Keith Petersen, Taylor Swan, Jaycie Ward, Scott Terry and Rachel Goodman.

Ryan’s longtime love of Southern rock and a mediocre concert provided the genesis for the fund raiser lineup.

“I was raised on Southern rock,” Ryan says. “I grew up listening to Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. My father and mother love Southern rock. It’s a music near and dear to me, and it’s always been something I loved.”

Ryan also plays in popular local cover band Ed Turner and Number 9. “We do cover music, and the idea is to re-create the music as best we can so we can take people on a journey back in time.”

Imagine his disappointment when he saw the Marshall Tucker Band in concert “and they just didn’t do a great job,” Ryan says. “People came up to me and said, ‘You could do better than that.’”

Ryan and his musician friends thought about that and decided they wanted to do a Southern rock concert. Ryan also wanted to do a fund raiser for the Augusta Players, “and here we are.”

Most people think theater fund raisers only ever feature show tunes, so it is a unique match to feature Southern rock. “We just wanted to do something original and different. And fun,” Ryan says. And popular, evidently. More than 200 tickets sold within hours of becoming available.

Tickets for the Nov. 23 Goin’ South concert at Miller Theatre are available at www.goinsouthlive.com.

Scott says he is eternally grateful for the support. “Ryan has generously offered to donate the proceeds that will allow two things to happen. We will be able to expand the program and get more people involved.”

Expanding Camp Wonderland to include more autistic children would bring joy to many people’s lives, Scott says.

“That final showcase performance – there was so much joy on that little stage they are performing on. Most of us who get involved with arts do so because it is a joyful, fun experience. And these autistic kids are not shy about expressing their joy. It carried me for months afterward and gave me so much happiness seeing their happiness.”

For more information on the Junior Players, go to www.augustaplayers.org.

This article appears in the November 2018 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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