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Boy Shines at Special Camp

Cerebral Palsy Ability Center works wonders with children.

Tommy Nash likes Harry Potter books, swimming and Scooby-Do. The 8 1/2-year-old Centreville boy also has cerebral palsy, but that doesn't stop his parents from seeing that he leads as full a life as possible.

"I have the most amazing and wonderful son and daughter-in-law," said John Nash, of Tommy parents, Greg and Tricia Nash of Sully Station. "They're incredible in their devotion to this child. They're so supportive of Tommy. Taking care of him is very demanding, but they do it — and it's heartwarming."

Blond-haired, green-eyed Tommy was born 10 weeks premature and his lungs weren't fully developed enough to function on their own, so he was placed on oxygen. But he had to be on it for so long that he suffered brain damage, as a result.

The damage was to the part of the brain controlling motor or muscle movements, adversely affecting Tommy's arms and legs and forcing him into a wheelchair. Yet, although he can't speak, he communicates through body language and facial expressions. And he's a bright child who comprehends everything that's going on.

He just finished second grade at Deer Park Elementary, where he's immersed in regular classes for subjects such as art, music, P.E. and science, and placed in special-education classes for math, reading and writing. "He loves school," said his mother. "He seems to enjoy music the best."

Tommy also likes his parents to read to him. "He loves the Harry Potter series, right now," she said. "It holds his attention and he's able to understand it." He also takes therapeutic horseback riding and will continue it during the summer. And, said Tricia Nash, "He loves to go swimming, and he likes movies — he especially responds well to Scooby-Do."

He takes muscle relaxants and gets physical, speech and occupational therapy at school. The therapy will stop over the summer but, instead, he'll attend the Cerebral Palsy Ability Center in Arlington, for six weeks of "conductive education."

The teachers are called "conductors" and, explained Nash, "Instead of having to go to three, different specialists, a conductor has the knowledge of all three types of therapy, plus education, and knows how best to combine them to benefit the children."

The summer camp is designed around a program developed in Hungary. This year's session runs from June 28-Aug. 6, Monday-Friday. This will be Tommy's third time attending, and his mother said he and other children there achieve visible improvements in their body strength and abilities in a short period of time.

"Before going to the camp, he could barely sit up for a minute, without help," she said. "But afterward, he was able to sit Indian-style for a minute, without support. He also learned to roll over from his back to his stomach, for the first time, and it was a huge milestone."

The camp focuses on children with cerebral palsy and other motor disorders. "It's intensive therapy, six hours a day, so we tend to see larger jumps in progress," said Carroll Olson, president of the Cerebral Palsy Ability Center board. "My daughter, 4 1/2, has cerebral palsy, and I've been involved with the center for 1 1/2 years."

There, said Olson, children receive lots of one-on-one attention, "and it's really neat to see the progress they make. The rest of the year, they get individual therapy but, in summer camp, they work in groups and root each other on."

When her daughter first went there, she said, she couldn't crawl or bear weight. Now, she sits up, stands with assistance and can use a walker. "You see big jumps in the kids' strength and coordination," said Olson. "The program emphasizes the same movements, over and over again, so the brain will learn new pathways so the body will coordinate these movements on its own."

"We're really fortunate that we have something like this in our area," said Nash. "A lot of people come from out of state — as far as Arizona — to attend the six-week session. We call it camp to disguise the fact that they're going through therapy. The kids are having so much fun that they don't realize they're stretching and strengthening their muscles."

She said children are also pushed hard to participate in all the activities, including speaking. "Most of them are [normally] immersed into environments where there aren't a lot of people like them, so they may feel shy about speaking," explained Nash. "Here, if they're playing a game where they're asked to spell, for example, 'United States,' each child has to say one letter of the word or make some sort of verbal response."

She said Tommy used to be reticent about speaking but, after one summer at the camp, he became much more vocal and interactive with other children and adults. At this year's session, there'll be five conductors and about 24 children, ages 3-11.

"It's a wonderful program, and Tommy's looking forward to it," said Nash. "All the kids do. They can't wait to get there, each day. Last summer, one child named Jake started out on canes, and I was fortunate enough to see him take his first steps down the hall, without them. It was really something — I stood there in tears. His parents had been told he would never walk."

Tommy's grandpa John Nash, of Fairfax, said he observed the camp's program firsthand, a couple years ago, when he drove him there. "I was very impressed with the people at this camp," he said. "I was just stunned at their dedication; they were so focused on these kids. I was amazed and appreciative of all they do."

Also impressing him, he said, was "the dedication and faith of the parents in bringing their children there and believing that it will help." And their faith was rewarded. "Even Tommy — who's completely, 100-percent helpless — would do five steps, each night, before he could go home, and his eyes would light up with the accomplishment," he said. "We could see a reaction."

Thanks to the attention of the staff, said John Nash, each child would do whatever he or she needed to do. And, he added, "They all participated in an end-of-camp play, and we all cheered."

The center, itself, offers programs, year 'round; call 703-920-0600. Tax-deductible contributions may be sent to: Cerebral Palsy Ability Center, 2445 Army-Navy Drive, 3rd floor, Arlington, VA 22206.