Clay White, helped a generation of Atlanta children, dies at 68

Clay White encouraged and taught his Atlanta students with conditions such as dyslexia and ADHD to take responsiblities for improving their lives. Parents have written that he helped save their childrens' lives.

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Clay White encouraged and taught his Atlanta students with conditions such as dyslexia and ADHD to take responsiblities for improving their lives. Parents have written that he helped save their childrens' lives.

Davis Hill faced a frightening challenge not long ago at Camp PEOTSI, a summer camp run by Clay White.

“We were all rock climbing, and I was terrified of heights. Clay was the kind of guy I wanted to follow,” Hill said. “He said, ‘You have to come up here,’ and I was like, ‘OK.’ I had a rope and had to climb up there (about 15 feet).”

“He was the kind of guy you wanted to have look at you with high respect,” Hill said.

“I was very scared,” said the rising high school senior, but he worked past the emotion and did it.

White, equipped with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in education, became a noted and well-loved recreational therapist in metro Atlanta, running adaptive sports programs at the Schenck School for dyslexic children. He also branched out into a business for children with a wide range of diagnosed conditions such as dyslexia, high-functioning autism, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which Hill struggles with.

It was more than just a day camp. White also organized regular hikes, activity-packed “Super Saturdays” and a Friday-night social club that helped kids learn to interact while having fun.

He was a coach, teacher, mentor and cheerleader who could be gruff at times, friends and staff said. He set high standards for himself, his staff of occupational therapists, young counselors — many of whom had graduated from his programs — and the elementary and high-school students themselves.

He was all about learning by doing and sensory experience in outdoor games, recreation, music, art therapy and drama.

Friends and family said a love of the youngsters in his program and a desire to give back propelled White. While positive and encouraging, he pushed his charges to get out of their comfort zones and take responsibility for their progress.

White, 68, died of a heart attack June 13, the first day of this year’s annual day camp. He is survived by his wife Gayle White, a brother, Dale White and two nieces and a nephew. A celebration of life is set for 3 p.m. Friday, June 24, at North Springs United Methodist Church, 7700 Roswell Road in Sandy Springs.

The Atlanta native, born July 4, 1953, was a school sports star who was bedeviled by dyslexia, Gayle White said. He coupled his own experiences with his taking note that children with various conditions showed personal improvements when taking part in outdoor activities.

Occupational therapist Stephanie Young, who worked at his camp, said he told the story of working with kids at a psychiatric institution.

On a hike they were to cross a pipe over a creek, similar to being on a balance beam, “but they didn’t have the coordination to make it happen,” she said.

But something changed during the exercise. “They then went on a rope swing, and on the way back, they were able to navigate the pipe.”

His observations were solidified while working with a child development specialist, leading him to his suite of programs. He coined the umbrella term of PEOTSI — physical education for kids receiving occupational therapy due to sensory integration issues.

His programs, under the mantle of Clay White LLC, grouped kids by age, therapeutic issue and developmental level for activities.

Ellen Hill, the mother of Davis Hill, said he taught those who had trouble keeping up “how to throw a ball. How to shoot a hoop. He taught them the rules of the game so they could be in the game.”

“He was driven,” said Brian Ivey, who became a fast friend after working with White while teaching. “He saw through peoples’ exteriors and saw their hearts and brought out the best in the kids he worked with and his employees.”

White’s resolve was tested this spring when the camp’s insurance provider of 15 years dropped it even though he had never filed a claim. His wife says he had to scramble for workarounds to stage a modified version of the camp.

“It was a nightmare,” said Gayle White. “And he was so stressed.” She says the financial aspects of not holding the camp were not the issue, it was his wanting to make sure youngsters continued to receive services. The camp closed after his death.

“He was just loved,” said White. She struggled to find a place for his memorial service that will be big enough for the expected crowd.

She said parents posted on a special Facebook page that “he saved my kid’s life.”