Summer camp has obvious benefits for all children. For children with disabilities, though, those benefits seem particularly deep and profound, and can have a ripple effect through the entire family.
Lisa Tivens’ teenage son has attended Reid’s Gift, a camp for those ages 14-22 with a variety of challenges, for two years. Witnessing his participation has been powerful for her. “They tailor the program so that everyone feels wanted, important,” she says. “They have a sense of purpose. There was a lot of learning about being a member of the community, helping, being a part of a group. And he’s gained independence, learning how to do things on his own.”
This interplay between a sense of belonging and a feeling of independence is at the core of many L.A.-area summer camps for children and teens with disabilities. It turns out that when campers gain the comfort and self-esteem boost of being with a group of peers and feeling understood, they are freed up and motivated to challenge themselves to reach new goals.
A sense of belonging is also a priority for the team at The Help Group’s Kids Like Me camp, a summer camp for children, teens and young adults with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental challenges. “Many of my campers start camp saying they don’t have friends or they don’t really know how to ask other kids to play,” says Nicole Webb, program director. “Then, at camp, they start naturally doing those things because they feel safe and accepted and similar to the other children they’re with.”
The Cauliflower Effect
To foster this development, Kids Like Me weaves in a social-skills curriculum throughout the day, using teachable moments in real interactions to help campers make better social skills choices. “It’s like hiding the cauliflower in the mashed potatoes,” says The Help Group’s Vice President of Programs Jason Bolton. “We’re creating a structured experience while also letting them have fun in camp.” In the midst of using the all-abilities playground donated by Hasbro, engaging in water play or getting their wiggles out in the sensory room, campers are also working on the same skills that they’re honing in school and other programs.
This “cauliflower effect” is also seen at SCAMP, a summer program at the Park Century School for children in grades 2-8 with mild language-based learning differences such as dyslexia, ADHD and visual and auditory processing disorders. “Parents love the individual tutoring sessions, and the kids don’t even notice the academics because there is so much fun going on throughout the day,” says Jennifer Palmer, chief operating officer. Every camper’s schedule is unique, with one-on-one tutoring in math or language arts interspersed with sports, cooking or “Super Shop,” a woodworking class that includes cutting with laser printers.
Palmer agrees that the sense of belonging is a springboard to development. “A lot of these kids feel beaten down at their home school because they don’t read as well as the child next to them or they just know their learning is different,” she says. “Here, we’re really about building their self-esteem up and making them feel part of the group.” Each camper also feels more like they fit because, due to a full assessment at the beginning of the summer, the one-on-one sessions are tailored to individual learning styles and strengths.
A Custom Fit
Leaps n Boundz, an adaptive sports and social skills program, also uses tailored experiences to help campers feel comfort and a sense of belonging. “We like to know our campers before they attend so that we can identify different opportunities that can be created in the day specifically for them, and their comfort level can be higher,” says owner Joclynn Benjamin. “We do an intake where families meet the camp director and explore the environment so campers know what to expect when they come back. It’s great because it gives the family a chance to meet us, and it gives us a chance to meet them and learn how we can support each other. The information you give me during that intake is going to help me create the best camp day for your camper.”
Benjamin’s team also uses knowledge about each camper to prepare for three field trips a week. “Just because you have a diagnosis doesn’t mean you can’t travel,” she says. On these trips, campers visit places such as the beach, the Queen Mary or Olvera Street to foster a sense of belonging not just with other campers, but with the community and the world.
Camp experiences can also be designed to meet a camper’s wants and needs by allowing campers to choose the program themselves. At Reid’s Gift, experiences are developed collaboratively between campers and staff. “I say to them, ‘This is your summer camp and we’re just helping you facilitate it,’” says Program Director Tina Ebsen, M.A., L.M.F.T. “We’re really big on self-determination and presuming competence.”
If campers have clear goals for themselves, the camp’s goal is simply to support the achievement of those goals. During Coffee House Week, a themed week where campers learn the skills needed to host a one-hour coffee house for family and friends, one camper who is non-speaking wanted to be a server. “We programmed out all these different questions into a flow chart in his communication device,” says Ebsen. “Then he could press the responses. And he did it. He was a server at the coffee house.”
Independence and Belonging
Campers can experience independence in many forms. Sometimes it can even happen in the water. “Parents often tell me at the start of camp that their child can’t swim, and then they are shocked at the end of the summer by how much their swimming has improved,” says Dr. Barry Lavay, professor of kinesiology at Long Beach State and director of Camp Nugget, which provides physical activity for children ages 5-12 who have disabilities.
As part of every Camp Nugget day, campers spend an hour in aquatics, supervised by students in the university’s adapted physical education program. And for some children, a feeling of independence comes from more than learning swim strokes. “Certain children who have needs related to motor skills can do things in the water, because of its buoyancy, that they can’t do on land,” says Lavay. The buoyancy of the water provides a freedom the campers love. In addition, campers get the benefit of being on the Long Beach campus and feeling like a part of that community.
A more unexpected side of this independence/belonging dichotomy is that it applies to parents as well as campers. “Parents of children with special needs often feel isolated,” Lavay says. “Getting parents together to just talk and realize they’re not alone is important.”
“Many of our families do get connected to each other,” echoes Kids Like Me’s Webb. “I always tell my families that if their camper comes home raving about this kid Johnny, well, then I want to connect Johnny’s mom with the other mom and set up play dates to create that sense of maintaining friendships.”
That connectedness often leads families to return to camps year after year. At Camp Nugget, campers who want to continue to participate after age 12 can find opportunities in the junior counselor program. Junior counselors experience independence on a whole new level by helping campers and assisting counselors in conducting activities.
Kids Like Me also finds many families becoming repeat customers. “The majority of folks that go to our summer camps for several years often then come in to interview for our school as well, because they’ve had such a good experience and they feel accepted. They can be them and that’s OK, no matter what that is,” says Webb.
All of these camps help maintain and improve social skills, academic skills, life skills and physical skills, among others, but they also provide something on a deeper level. At Reid’s Gift, each day closes with campers reflecting on something they enjoyed, learned or found meaning in. “They write out messages for everyone else at camp, saying something they appreciated about that person or a happy memory,” says Ebsen. “So they’re building those connections.” These are the types of connections that help campers feel a sense of belonging and of budding independence, and also see and feel proud of their progress. For a child with disabilities, this can have a profound impact on their summer experience – and beyond.
Kate Korsh is an L.A.-based writer and mom of two who frequently contributes to L.A. Parent.