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Cutbacks to close Western Pennsylvania camp for disabled

| Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012

Every summer, 7-year-old Jack McGill looked forward to weeks of arts, crafts and trips to the park, pool and other fun places through summer camp.

His mother, Shawn, looked forward to knowing her son, who has high-functioning autism, was enjoying himself in a safe environment surrounded by people who understood him.

This summer, Jack likely won't attend camp. State funding cuts forced InVision Human Services, an Uptown-based nonprofit specializing in programs for people with special needs, to cancel it unless other funding materializes.

"I try to get him involved in the community as much as possible," said Shawn McGill, 35, of Stanton Heights, who is a manager of clinical consulting with InVision. "Kids with disabilities want to have normal, fun summers."

Providers of summer camps for the disabled are faced with tough choices as government funding dries up.

Gov. Tom Corbett's 2012-13 budget proposes 20 percent reductions — saving $168 million — for seven line items that include money for intellectual disabilities and behavioral health services. The line items would then be consolidated into one block grant for counties to distribute at their discretion.

In November the state Department of Public Welfare reduced reimbursement rates by 6 percent for agencies such as InVision.

"Providers of all sizes are having to look at things like summer camp realistically and ask, 'Can we continue to provide these?' " said Gabrielle Sedor, spokeswoman for the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Advocacy and Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disabilities. "Summer camps are really just the beginning of what we're going to see.

"Even though everyone told us, 'If you thought last year was bad, this year is going to be worse,' I still think the level of cuts took us all aback. Yes, times are tight, but if you say something is a priority like serving those most in need, you find the money."

Kelli Roberts, spokeswoman for the governor, said the block grant system would provide counties with the "flexibility and local control over their human services funding that they have been requesting for years."

"This approach allows for some operational and administrative savings ... that can be driven back into direct services," she said.

While InVision is the only agency that told the Tribune-Review it was cancelling its camp, others could be cutting wages and reducing staff, said Sedor.

"Providers might be able to continue offering programs like summer camps by charging for them, but I'm not sure that would be realistic for families already struggling," she said.

"There might be private grants, donations or other funding sources to look to. Unfortunately, discontinuing summer camps could be the price an organization has to pay to ensure they are able to continue providing other services mandated in the individual service plans of the people they support."

Ruth Siegfried, InVision's executive director, sent a letter to families and camp staff explaining that fees have never been enough to cover costs.

"However, InVision believes so strongly in the concept of the community-based activity camp that we have continued despite a budget shortfall of tens of thousands of dollars each year," reads the letter.

Until now. The agency, which has an annual budget of about $23 million, lost around $120,000 on the camp last year alone.

Jack McGill, who has high-functioning autism, is devastated the camp won't be happening this summer, said his mother. She's having difficulty finding something else for him.

"I'm looking and looking and looking," she said. "I've not found anything appropriate or affordable."

The InVision camp, held during multiple two- and three-week sessions at three locations in Western Pennsylvania, served about 200 kids, Siegfried said, and employed 60 people, mostly teachers from local school districts.

The camp included arts and crafts and frequent outings to places like public pools, parks and Kennywood.

Siegfried calls the rate cuts "phenomenally harsh." In addition to the camp's apparent demise, they resulted in the elimination of four vacant positions at the agency. Executive staff took pay cuts, and the agency froze all wages.

Siegfried plans to appeal to foundations and other funding sources to salvage the camp, if not for this year then for summer 2013.

"I haven't given up entirely," she said.

Sedor urges parents to "get mad, get vocal."

"Contact your legislator, your governor, your neighbor who has connections," she said. "Tell them, 'I'm a real person. This is impacting me and my family.' "

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