Down syndrome child finds fun, acceptance at Breakaway

Bayside Church receives anonymous donation to fund 20 kids with special needs to attend annual summer camp
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Matthew Conry dips his hands into a puddle of blue paint and races over to his dad, arms open wide for a hug. His dad, Ralph, kindly refuses the gesture from his 10-year-old son, instead offering a piece of paper for a handprint. Matthew smothers his hands on the paper and sprints back to his unfinished art project. “He really gets into whatever’s going on,” Conry says. “He’s well-known around the camp because he’s so sweet.” Last week, Matthew attended Breakaway, an annual summer camp at Bayside Church in Granite Bay started in 1997. This year’s theme is “Breakaway to the Artic Freeze.” More than 2,600 children ages 4 years old through 6th grade will attend the camp by the time it ends Friday. About 1,900 volunteers help run the production. Matthew plays with the other children, sliding down the waterslides, riding the zipline and jumping in the bounce house. He creates art projects and sits quietly during story time — basically, he has fun while learning lessons from the Bible. “He really enjoys it,” Conry says. “He’s a big helper. He loves to be active and he loves the music and dancing.” But Matthew is a little different than most of the campers. He has Down syndrome. He, along with 74 other children with special needs, attended Breakaway this year. “I’m praying for 100 next year,” says Marcy Spina, of the church’s special needs ministry. About 20 of these children received partial or full scholarships to attend the camp thanks to an anonymous $3,000 donation. Matthew was one of these lucky recipients. Special needs kids participate in either the Buddy Program, in which they’re assimilated into the main group and partnered with a buddy, or the Special Kids Included tract that accommodates children who benefit from flexible schedules. These children also get buddies. Kaitlynn Plaskett, 14, served as Matthew’s buddy. “He’s a lot of fun,” she says. She holds his hand as she takes him to story time Wednesday morning to listen to church member Bonnie Christensen talk about her three children, one with Down syndrome who doctors thought wouldn’t live past a week old. She says God comforted her during this difficult time. “The (Bible) promises to take care of us,” Christensen says. “(Jesus) gave us great hope.” Her son recently celebrated his 16th birthday. As Christensen speaks, Matthew lays on the floor against Kaitlynn. Paper snowflakes and white Christmas lights adorn the room, and blue tissue paper covers the ceiling to convey the night sky. The restless 5th and 6th graders all bow their heads and clasp their hands to pray. But then it’s playtime again. “You wanna go get wet?” Kaitlynn asks her buddy. “Yeah!” Matthew shouts. He hops on Kaitlynn’s back for a piggyback ride across the parking lot to the field and zipline ride. There sits 7-year-old Kole Miller, who has Lesch-Nyhan disease, a rare inherited disorder. The life expectancy for children with this condition is early to mid-20s. Bayside Senior Pastor Ray Johnston approaches Kole to say hello. “Hi, big guy,” Kole says. Because he cannot control his muscles, Kole is confined to a wheelchair. But with the help of camp volunteer Jessica Tanihana, he rides the zipline to “fly like a bird,” he says. As for Matthew, he flies across the zipline several times before moving on to the waterslides. He laughs and kicks up water — and never stops smiling. “To me, he’s an angel from heaven,” Conry says. “We say he has (a disability) but it’s the rest of us who are backwards. He’s all about love. He has such a pure heart.” Sena Christian can be reached at