Ian Armstrong, left, and Grady Hopper, right, have formed a unique partnership through their work at Camp Carlquist in Chugiak. Armstrong, a 16-year-old with autism, is a first-year staff member at the Cub Scout camp, while Hopper, 20, serves as Armstrong’s life skills coach through FOCUS, Inc.
Tucked away on the backside of a small lake at the edge of the Chugach Mountains, Camp Carlquist Cub Scout Camp is young boy’s paradise. There’s Edmonds Lake to swim in, hiking trails to explore and plenty of fresh air to breathe while running and playing in the Alaska summer sun. It’s a place where stories are made, songs are learned and lifetime friendships forged. And for Ian and Grady, it’s where two uncertain futures began to come into focus.
Trouble in camp
At first glance, Ian Armstrong seems like a pretty typical 16-year-old. He’s tall and lanky, with a short crop of sandy brown hair that looks like it might be a shade lighter than usual thanks to a summer spent outdoors. Dressed in his blue camp T-shirt and green cargo pants, a stranger wouldn’t be able to pick him out as different from any of the camp’s other 25 staff members.
But Ian is different.
Like an estimated 2 million Americans, Ian has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a condition that often includes “difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors,” according to advocacy group Autism Speaks.
Amy Armstrong is Ian’s mom. She said Ian doesn’t always do well in social situations. He’s acted out in the past when he’s felt uncomfortable.
“He has a hard time reading social cues, a hard time understanding and reacting to social situations,” she said.
But he’s also bright and inquisitive, with a keen interest in chemistry and astronomy.
“He’s very idea oriented, he sees things other people often don’t notice,” she said.
And he loves scouting. As a member of Chugiak-based Troop 219 — Alaska’s largest — he has spent many a summer exploring the Alaska outdoors.
“I like the campouts, mostly,” he said recently during an interview at Camp Carlquist.
Last summer, Ian wanted to attend nearby Camp Gorsuch Boy Scout Camp (both camps are located on the sprawling Rasmussen Scout Reservation near Chugiak) with his troop. But the experience didn’t start off well. Ian, who can be headstrong and withdrawn, was becoming a distraction and having trouble fitting into the camp environment. If a solution couldn’t be found, Ian would have to go.
Looking for direction
After a year of college at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Grady Hopper wasn’t any closer to finding a career path than when he’d graduated high school. The 2011 Chugiak High grad was “just kind of tooling around, taking general classes,” as he tried to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
Although he’d “aged out” of scouting, the Troop 219 Eagle Scout remained active with his former troop in his first summer after college. He was at Camp Gorsuch when Ian began having problems last summer.
“He was dealing with some issues,” said Hopper, 20.
Amy Armstrong knew Hopper through the young man’s work in the troop, and noticed how Ian looked up to him. So she approached Grady with an idea. What if Grady worked with Ian, helping the autistic teen navigate through the hectic world of summer camp? Hopper was open to the idea.
Armstrong went to Eagle River nonprofit FOCUS, Inc., and asked if they’d be willing to hire Hopper as a life skills coach for Ian. The agency — which provides support to individuals with developmental disabilities — agreed to the plan.
“FOCUS didn’t have anybody that could be here the entire week, and his parents couldn’t be here the entire week, so his parents were like, ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge, here’s this guy,’” Hopper said.
The idea worked. Amy Armstrong said Grady had a calming influence on her son’s behavior, which improved immediately.
“He just needed a cool dude to be around,” she said.
The experience had a lasting impact on Hopper. After seeing the impact he had on his fellow scout’s life, he began thinking about his own future. During his sophomore year at UAA, he started to seriously consider a career working with the mentally challenged. By this spring he’d declared a major in psychology with a minor in social work. He said working with Ian is what sparked his interest in helping others.
“It’s been a great experience, and I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “I’m definitely thinking of sticking with this for a while.”
Amy Armstrong said she thinks Hopper is perfectly suited for the field.
“He is just the most gentle soul and he can get my son to do things and achieve things in social settings,” she said. “Because of the way he models himself, he is able to demonstrate and get Ian to the point of doing things that I never could.”
Work and play
When the summer of 2013 rolled around, Ian was ready to go back to camp. But this time, he wanted to take a more active role in things, and applied to be an assistant den chief over at Camp Carlquist. In order for him to take on such a big responsibility, however, he’d need some guidance. His pal Grady was more than happy to help.
When the seven-week camp season began, Ian and Grady arrived as a team — Hopper as life skills coach, Armstrong as a junior camp counselor.
Hopper said it was easy getting Ian integrated into camp life. He simply hung around and served as a mentor for Ian, allowing the younger scout to feel he had someone to turn to when things got overwhelming.
“For the first couple days he needed me out here just so he had someone he knew,” Hopper said. “After that he just took off.”
But being a counselor isn’t the same as being a camper, and Ian quickly discovered working as an assistant den chief meant, well, working as an assistant den chief.
“It’s a lot of work,” Armstrong said.
Along with the rest of the staff, Ian had to spend a week setting up camp before scouts arrived. But with Hopper alongside to help, he took to the work with gusto.
“We had to set things up, clean up, clean bathrooms, get things organized — but you know what? — once that’s done we have the whole camp,” he said.
By that Ian meant he had six weeks to work with young scouts, paddle canoes and lead singalongs alongside his fellow staff members as part of a team. For that privilege, he said he didn’t mind cleaning a few bathrooms.
“I’m alright with doing that,” he said. “I love this job.”
His mom said Ian didn’t always attack housework with such enthusiasm. In the past, getting Ian to do simple chores could be a battle not always worth fighting. But on his first weekend home from camp, Amy caught her son doing something any parent might find remarkable.
“He was loading the dishwasher without me saying anything,” she said. “My mother-in-law and I looked at each other and were like, ‘Who is this kid?’”
An added benefit
Having Ian around has been anything but a burden for Carlquist’s staff. On the contrary, camp director Mary Meresh said Ian’s presence has been a benefit. On the first day of camp’s final week, she said a new camper’s dad nervously approached her with concerns about his son.
“He said, ‘People don’t like him because of his label and they treat us very meanly when we go places,’” Maresh said. She asked what his son’s “label” was.
“He’s autistic,” the man replied.
In the past, pronouncement might have been met with confusion or concern. Maresh told the man the camp had an autistic staff member. He was shocked.
“He’s like, ‘You what?’” Maresh recalled the man saying. “‘And he works here?’”
The man asked to meet Ian. Maresh said he was overwhelmed after speaking with the quirky yet polite junior staffer and seeing that Ian was fully accepted as a member of the camp.
“He said, ‘That’s my son. I see it,’” Maresh said. “The dad was so excited to see where his son could go. I thought that was awesome, I really did.”
A newfound confidence
Over the past two summers, Amy Armstrong said she’s seen a change in her son. Gone is the boy whose quick temper nearly cost him a summer in the place he most loves. After nearly six weeks of helping young scouts, Ian is a more assured young man who sees himself returning as a full-fledged den chief in the near future.
“He looks more confident in himself,” she said, adding that her son has gained valuable job skills while working at the camp. “He just has this air about him of accomplishment.”
And Grady Hopper has changed, too. No longer a directionless college student, he sees himself heading down a path toward a lifelong career that began with a trip to summer camp. As someone invovled in scouting since first grade, he said he thinks appropriate he found his calling at Camp Carlquist.
“Scouting has done a lot for me. It’s taken me places I’d never go otherwise,” he said.
And it also introduced him to Ian, with whom he’s developed a genuine friendship forged through scouting, summer camp and a shared love of the Halo video game series.
“We hang out a lot now,” Ian said. “Even at home.”
Into the future
During a recent interview, a reporter takes a bit too much time taking Ian’s photo, and the assistant den chief gets irritated.
“A couple more pictures and let’s head in,” he says, gesturing toward the nearby camp buildings.
He’s not trying to be rude, but Ian’s eyes are sensitive to the light. Besides that, he likes to keep to a strict schedule.
“I have to be somewhere in 10 minutes,” he says, looking around nervously.
The reporter moves to a shady area and Ian smiles. The teen’s mood changes as the photo shoot wraps up, and he amiably thanks the reporter for his time.
“I very much appreciate it, actually,” he says as he begins to walk away.
Then he turns back to the reporter and speaks — softly at first, then with more conviction.
“This has turned my life around from where I was in the past,” he says.
“How so?” the reporter asks.
“Well, I started off as a kid with anger issues. Now I’m all the way up here,” he says, raising his hand to eye level for emphasis. “To me, I feel like I’m way up there, being interviewed by you and just being appreciated at this camp, you know?”
Ian then turns his back to the sun and starts back toward camp — his friend Grady Hopper walking at his side.
They’ve got places to go.