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By Derek Lacey / Staff Writer

Bob Bowler has been a volunteer with Special Olympics for 29 years. In that time, he noticed that everything shut down in the summer, and saw the need for a camp for Special Olympics athletes. Camp SOAR was born.

Camp SOAR, or Special Olympics Athlete Retreat, began in 2000, with no small effort from Bowler, who after seeing the need, started to look around for locations. He decided to try for the Levine Jewish Community Center in Charlotte and called Barry Schumer, the assistant executive director of the center, to make a lunch meeting and discuss his plans.

“They show up, we shake hands, and they said ‘What do you want to talk about?’,” said Bowler. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t have any money, but I’ve got a lot of visions, dreams, and hopes that you can help me. I want to start a day camp for the special needs community.”

Bowler’s timing was impeccable, since the JCC was then trying to do more community outreach, and the rest is history.

Fifty four campers and 35 volunteers made up the first camp, and the next year, it was up to 75 campers, the next year: 110, and it has been growing ever since. This year, approximately 350 campers and 400 volunteers made Camp SOAR happen.

Bowler spends most of his time planning and coordinating Camp SOAR, and it has come a long way since the first year, where lunch was handmade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. This year, Compass Foods donated 325 lunches a day, and Harris Teter and other companies donated drinks and snacks.

Camp SOAR offers special needs individuals the chance to explore new sports and activities, including tennis, swimming, basketball, soccer, bowling, and yoga, as well as arts and crafts and other activities.

Volunteers come from all over the area, including schools, colleges, churches, and companies.

Eileen Schwartz has been heading the art project portion of Camp Soar for the last three years, and this year, planned out a larger project than in previous years.

Schwartz began a program in 2001, after 9/11, call Flags Across the Nation, a program that supports patriotism through the arts, which she incorporated with Camp SOAR.

Campers participated in a variety of activities for the arts portion, decorating pillowcases and wooden hearts for the troops, but the main project was an art kit, assembled from donated supplies, to be sent to Fort Bragg and overseas. The kits include notebooks and art supplies, as well as notes and postcards from the campers.

“The goal is to merge giving back to the community through art for veterans and having supplies and art projects to give to the veterans and our troops, and also to give the campers something of their own,” Schwartz said.

Another aspect of Camp SOAR and Flags Across the Nation is the Blankets for Recovery, orchestrated with Memorial United Methodist Church, which provided 59 blankets from nine blanket makers this year.

Overseen by E.J. Mcgee, coordinator of Blankets for Recovery, the program has sent more than 700 blankets to recovering soldiers, and the art project and blankets will mainly be sent to the Wounded Warrior Project at the Warrior Transition Program at Fort Bragg this year.

Camp SOAR plans to continue to grow in years to come, and plans are even in the works for Camp SAOR 2, a separate summer camp for younger campers. For more information, visit, or email Bob Bowler, at