MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Special needs camp is first of its kind in L.A.

[adrotate banner="54"]

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

Areva Martin felt nothing but frustration year after year trying to find a summer day camp that could meet the special needs of her son, Marty, who is on the autism spectrum.

An award-winning civil rights attorney, best-selling author (“Awakening: Ladies, Leadership, and the Lies We’ve Been Told”), talk-show host, and a media personality with appearances on “Good Morning America,” MSNBC, CNN, and “The Doctors,” Martin is also a passionate autism advocate who is the president and founder of Special Needs Network, an autism advocacy organization that helps families find resources for autism and build connections in the autism community.

Martin said she was spending $1,200 a week to essentially see her son kicking a ball around the yard. He wasn’t getting much of a creative outlet or socialization, and there was no one on staff who knew how to work with special needs children.

“The camps I found wanted my son to have a full-time aid with him at the camp,” said Martin, a married mother of three. “I was frustrated. I thought about other families who don’t have $1,200 a week to put their children in camp.”

Martin didn’t take the fact that she couldn’t find an adequate camp for her son lying down. She did what any mother would do in her position — she started her own. That was 12 years ago.

The camp is called the Special Needs Network’s Joe Patton Academy Camp.

“I went to my board and said I wanted to start a free summer camp because no one can afford $1,200,” said Martin, a Harvard-trained attorney. “Let’s create our own. We hooked up with the County of Los Angeles. We got special education teachers.”

Although she brought special education teachers on board, Martin, a St. Louis native who attended college at the University of Chicago, didn’t want to create a special needs camp.

“I just wanted it to be a camp,” she said. “I wanted it to be a place for all kids.”

This year, for the first time, the Joe Patton Academy Camp, which is currently hosting 250 kids, is being led by 90 camp counselors, 12 of whom are employed by the county and are on the autism spectrum. 

Drew Cox, 22, is one of the 12.

“As a camp counselor, I am responsible for engaging with the campers who have special needs, assisting them with various camp activities and making sure they are safe,” said Cox, a Los Angeles native and a senior at Loyola Marymount University, pursuing a degree in African American studies with a minor in animation. “I think it’s important that counselors like me on the autism spectrum be a part of Camp JPAC because it not only helps us form a meaningful relationship with the campers, but it also helps us to build empathy and compassion as we interact with the campers who are also on the autism spectrum as well.”

Martin said the addition of the 12 ensures that children attending Camp JPAC will not only benefit from a camp designed specifically for their needs but will also be taught and supported by individuals who share their experiences and understand their challenges.

“At Special Needs Network, we believe in the power of inclusion and the limitless potential of every child,” Martin said. “We are incredibly proud to collaborate with the county and provide job opportunities for these remarkable young adults. Through Camp JPAC, we are not only creating a fun and supportive environment for our campers but also empowering and equipping our counselors for long-term employment success.”

Martin said the collaboration with the county aims to provide sustainable employment and training opportunities for individuals with special needs. The 12 camp counselors employed by the county will receive comprehensive training, equipping them with valuable skills for long-term employment prospects.

“This groundbreaking model of a camp for special needs, taught by those with special needs, has the potential to revolutionize the way we approach inclusion and empower individuals with disabilities in the workforce,” she said.

Martin said the seed money to start the camp was provided by a woman named Jan White, whose brother, Joe Patton, had recently died.

“Reading and learning was difficult for him, but he became a contractor,” Martin said. “When he passed, he left his estate to his sister to manage. She gave us $200,000, and that’s how we started. It was the seed money. That’s why it’s called, Special Needs Network’s Joe Patton Academy Camp — in honor of him.”

Today, Special Needs Network’s Joe Patton Academy Camp is thriving. It opened July 17, runs Monday through Friday, and will continue through Aug. 4.

The camp experience includes structured activities, spontaneous free play, organized sports and social interaction. Campers are encouraged to develop and explore their imaginations as they engage in various fun and educational activities. Its innovative curriculum is customized for every age and experience level so children can pursue an existing passion or learn something new.

The camp, which is free and located at St. Agnes Catholic School in South Los Angeles, has 250 kids and 90 staff members. It is open 7:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. for early drop-off and late pick-up. Camp programs are from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“It’s in South L.A. for a reason,” Martin said. “It’s central and easily accessible. There are plenty of classrooms, a playground, and it’s in the neighborhood.”

Children at the camp range in age from 5 to 18. The majority of the kids are ages 5 to 15.

The camp includes dance, sports, robotics, classes in science, technology, engineering, the arts, math, media, audiovisual and more.

Martin said the camp is a life-changing experience.

“The camp is a jewel,” she said. “It’s a gem. There is nothing like it in the county. We are making magical experiences for kids and families that are often forgotten. These kinds of camps would cost $2,500 a week with the kind of level of instruction that we have.”

On July 21, the Los Angeles Kings visited the camp to demonstrate hockey techniques. Martin said McDonald’s, one of the camp’s sponsors, will provide free happy meals to the kids every Friday.

“I had to contain myself from breaking down and crying after meeting the kids,” said Martin about a recent visit. “Some of the kids are traveling from Covina. I met six cousins who were attending. We have some kids who started with us and are now counselors.  We have kids who have been there 12 years.”

Martin did not want to segregate the kids on the spectrum from their peers.

“I wanted the kids to be integrated with their peers,” she said. “I wanted them to be the priority and have a safe space. I wanted them to be able to yell and scream, and and not be ostracized. I wanted them to be safe and express themselves.”

Martin, who with her husband owns Martin & Martin, LLP where they currently represent civil rights cases involving race, gender, and disability discrimination, said the camp is important.

“All kids need an opportunity to interact and have social experiences,” Martin said. “They need to make friends. Some kids on the spectrum don’t have friends. 

“For some of these kids, their fondest memory is summer camp. We want typical kids to know there are kids who are different in this world. I’ve learned from all of this: build it and people will come.”

“Making a Difference” is a regular feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at

[adrotate banner="53"]

Must Read

[adrotate banner="55"]