Summer Camp for Special Kids

By Melanie Gaball

summer camp - special needs

Staff at Kids Like Me Camps evaluate each child and place them in the camp that will give them the best opportunity to grow, have fun and be safe. PHOTO COURTESY THE HELP GROUP

You did your homework, made your visits and found a great school for your child with special needs. But soon school will be out. What will your child do this summer?

If you are considering summer camp, know that there are a lot of great programs in the L.A. area that will allow your child to have a real summer-camp experience in a safe and nurturing environment. Now is the time to sign up, and we have started your research for you! There really is something for everyone – from teens who could use a chance to learn independent skills away from home, to families that want to stick together.

The Help Group’s Kids Like Me Camps

With camps for a range of ages and abilities throughout the summer, staff at Kids Like Me Camps (www.kidslikemela.org) evaluate each child and place them in the camp that will give them the best opportunity to grow, have fun and be safe.

“Our camps are open to the public, not just those who attend Help Group schools during the school year,” says Kids Like Me Program Director Nicole Webb. “We want more kids from the community, who may attend general-education schools, to have an opportunity to be around more kids like them during the summer.”

Village Glen Day Camp, which focuses on social skills for ages 3-13, takes place at The Help Group’s Culver City and Sherman Oaks campuses. Therapists from The Help Group assist campers with high-functioning autism, ADHD, extreme shyness and other issues develop social skills through fun activities and field trips. “We go somewhere once a week,” says Webb, adding destinations have included the Santa Monica Pier, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the California Science Center. “On campus, we bring in therapy dogs, we have music classes, art and water play.”

For those with moderate to severe special needs, Camp Sunshine offers recreation programs adapted to where the kids are developmentally. The camper-counselor ratio is 3:1 at this camp, and for those who need it, they offer a 1-to-1 aide for $60 per day.

The Help Group also offers a unique program to help teens learn independent skills and integrate into the community. Teens on the Go and Teens on the Go Travel Camp are a fully facilitated set of field trips with a daily schedule of trips around Los Angeles and overnight trips to Orange County and San Diego. “It’s a good experience for the kids to be away from home and be accountable for their space, their clothes and hygiene,” says Webb. “There is a lot of learning that is done, because we teach them to be independent and be adventurous with foods, and try new things and be a little bit more flexible.”

Change in behavioral and social skills can happen fairly quickly when a child is fully immersed in the structure of the program. “Many of the kids really benefit from having a structured program during an unstructured time like summer,” says Webb. “I tell most families to do a minimum of at least two weeks in a row to really grasp what we are trying to do with the kids and to be able to see a difference.”

Whispering Winds Family Camp

summer camp - special needs

Whispering Winds family camp offers programming for typical kids, parents and children with special needs, so that families can spend time together. PHOTO COURTESY WHISPERING WINDS

Whispering Winds (www.whisperingwinds.org), located in San Diego County, has been offering weekend summer-camp retreats for 27 years. In 2012, Stephanie Kiesel, an attorney representing parents of children with special needs and a board member at Whispering Winds, saw the need for a family camp that could also accommodate children with special needs.

“We wanted these families to be able to spend time with other like-minded families, and have time for singing and seminars and playing outside and all of the things we do,” says Kiesel. “Their typical children could do all of the things we always have, but then their special-needs child would have their own distinct programming that would be parallel to their typical brothers and sisters, but with the accompaniment of a 1-to-1 aide.”

This aide is with the child for every waking moment of the weekend, allowing parents and siblings to relax while still making memories with their family member with special needs.

“Many parents who come have told me that they have never spent time away from their child,” says Kiesel. “They have never gone on a date night with their spouse. They have never even taken a walk by themselves since their child was born because of their fear that their needs wouldn’t be met. So, this camp has been the first time they have been able to reconnect with their spouse and typical kids while knowing their special-needs child is having the time of their life nearby.”

Activities at the camp include horseback riding, zip lining, swimming, rock climbing, dancing, seminars and family time.

Kiesel explains that having the aide, or “buddy,” is like having a new member of your family, and that the relationships between buddy and child, and between families, are potentially lifelong. “It can be transformative for the typical children and parents to be at a place where they can be reaffirmed that their family is OK even though they are different,” says Kiesel. “They finally felt like they weren’t alone because there were other kids who had the blessings of having a special-needs child in their home, too.”

The family-camp session runs July 22-24, and registration is underway. The camp can accommodate 35 families.

CSU Long Beach Camp Nugget

special needs - summer camp

Throughout the day, kids at Camp Nuggest are getting structured swimming lessons. PHOTO COURTESY CAMP NUGGET

For those who want their children to be active in a safe environment, Camp Nugget (www.csulb.edu/campnugget) offers children with special needs an adaptive sports program facilitated by experts in the field.

Run by the Adapted Physical Education program in the CSULB Department of Kinesiology, the camp offers a half-day of physical education for ages 5-12 from June 20-July 15.

Camp Director Barry Lavay has a doctorate in kinesiology and is a professor at CSULB with more than 30 years of teaching experience. “I train all of the staff, which are mostly students in the department,” says Lavay. “We offer a quality program, which is specifically designed to meet these children’s needs at a low child-to-staff ratio of 4-to-1.”

The camp offers a variety of games and activities, relaxation exercises and swimming lessons to help children improve motor and social skills, increase self-esteem and have fun with peers. “Throughout the day, they are getting structured swimming lessons,” says Lavay. “ A lot cannot swim in the beginning, and while we work with them, we see a great improvement in their skills.”

The camp also has a behavior-management program that offers parents daily feedback about their child, says Lavay. And there is a room where parents can meet and talk with other parents.

Pediatric Therapy Network’s Camp Escapades

summer camp - Special needs

Camp Escapades is run side-by-side with a day camp for typically developing kids at Rolling Hills Country Day School, and activities are often integrated. PHOTO COURTESY CAMP ESCAPADES

Camp Escapades (www.pediatricthearpynetwork.org/campescapades) offers kids ages 5- 14 with a variety of special needs a summer-camp experience wrapped around special-needs therapy. “The Pediatric Therapy Network techniques are imbedded in the camp,” says Karen Rodriguez, camp director and occupational therapist. “We specialize in activities that help sensory processing.”

Along with an experienced staff of occupational, physical and speech therapists who consult with every group, and paraprofessional educators who work with children throughout the school year, each camper has a teen buddy who helps facilitate all their activities.

Rodriguez says they monitor each child’s arousal level with something they call “Engine Shop.” “The goal is to keep each child at ‘just right,’ which means they are participating at an optimal level,” she explains.

The camp is run side-by-side with a day camp for typically developing kids at Rolling Hills Country Day School, and activities are often integrated. “It gives people in our community a chance to see what our kids are like,” says Rodriguez.

Activities include arts and crafts, cooking, dance, sports, music, games and yoga. Camp runs from 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Aug. 8-12 and 15-19.

There are many other great summer programs available for kids of all abilities and interests. Talk with your child’s teachers and therapists, and with other parents, and you’re certain to find a program that offers your child a fun summer filled with songs, games, sports and other activities – and a chance to build new skills in a new environment.

Melanie Gaball is an L.A. writer who frequently contributes to L.A. Parent.

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