Bonding with teammates to learn a new sport, flexing a new artistic muscle, working as a group to achieve a united goal, gaining a deeper understanding of self – each year, more than 11 million children attend some kind of overnight or day camp in the U.S., according to the American Camp Association. These extended opportunities for play and learning have been around since the 1860s, and an ever-widening slate of programs and experiences in the greater L.A. area makes them available to kids with disabilities.
Perhaps the biggest reason to send any child to camp is the simplest: social connection. Summer camps provide ample opportunities for socialization, developing friendships and breaking out of isolating activities. They’re important for all kids, but especially beneficial for children with physical or developmental disabilities, who often find making connections difficult.
Camp program directors say campers have had a successful time at camp if they leave the experience happier, more engaged and maybe with a new friend or a group of friends they want to keep seeing after the program is over. It’s a welcome activity even in the middle of a child’s busy schedule.
“Parents are worried that their children may be suffering from treatment exhaustion and wonder if they should take a break from special education, ancillary services and things like summer programs,” says Jason Bolton, vice president of programs for The Help Group, which operates the Kids Like Me summer camps in Culver City, Sherman Oaks, Valley Glen and a new one debuting in Orange County this year.
Don’t is the resounding response. Camps can be a positive thread in a child’s development.
Finding a Fit
Bolton’s colleague, Nicole Webb, program director for Kids Like Me, agrees. “During the downtime of summer, that’s when you see a lot of reclusive behaviors in kids, playing video games or being on the computer 12 hours a day, not engaging with others. Skills learned in the school years can be lost, so camp can be that consistent piece,” she says, adding that summer programs keep the routine regular but offer a different focus and lighter tone.
Bolton says camps provide experiences for kids who don’t even realize they are getting support, because they are having fun and enjoying what they are doing. “It’s like hiding the vegetables in the spaghetti sauce,” he says.
“How will my child fit in with others at this camp?” is a common question Bolton and Webb hear from potential families.
Webb suggests arranging a face-to-face interview and a tour of the facilities, particularly if families can watch a similar camp or program in session. She tells the story of a mother and her 8-year-old son who came in for a visit. The boy, who had been teased and bullied at other programs, was introduced to a social-skills group and immediately fit in. “The mom had never seen him interact so easily with other kids, playing with them right off the bat,” says Webb. “The mom broke down in tears. She couldn’t believe it was possible.”
Other questions parents often have about summer camps tend to be practical. Is the camp easy for us to get to? How will it fit into our family’s schedule? Can we afford it? Are scholarships available? Who takes care of medical issues and administers medications? What’s their training? Who’s in charge?
A Summer of Sports
As for what kinds of camp activities to seek out, parents should take their cue from their children. “Ask yourself, ‘What do they need?’” says Ose Dalldorf, director of special education for the Broadway Gymnastic School. For more than 40 years, this expansive gymnastics center near Playa Vista has offered special-education classes and camps designed for those with developmental disabilities, especially those on the autism spectrum.
In addition to engaging in therapeutic gymnastics (targeting movements that can boost the brain-body connection), the Broadway Gymnastic camp experience incorporates games, obstacle courses, arts and crafts, fort building, music making and even gardening in the nearby vegetable plot.
For parents considering a gymnastics camp, Dalldorf advises asking about staff training and student-to-teacher ratio. “For younger children, it should be about 3-to-1, and older 6-to-1,” she says, explaining that the nature of the sport is careful, controlled movements, so smaller groupings are necessary. For new families, she always suggests the child take a trial class to assess whether the fit is right.
Campers can try a variety of sports at an innovative program that puts college students specializing in adaptive physical education into the counselor’s seat. For 49 years, Camp Nugget at Cal State Long Beach has offered children with a broad range of disabilities a chance to improve their motor skills through play and provided college students with valuable hands-on experience in the field.
“Our students can listen to me talk about theory, but to work with a child and put that theory to practice is a whole other level of application,” says Melissa Bittner, assistant professor of adapted physical education at CSLB and fitness director at the on-campus summer program. “Seeing how a child responds makes more sense to students; it crystalizes the teaching and learning.”
The popular morning day camp introduces children to swimming, yoga, basketball and other sports, while incorporating the socialization opportunities that physical activities bring. “We learn how to take turns, communicate with a partner and play cooperative games,” says Bittner.
Graduating campers ages 13 and older can return as junior camp counselors who have a leadership role in the program. “Many parents love the idea of their kid supporting and nurturing younger ones,” Bittner says. “We write letters of recommendation for them that could open doors for that child for future employment.”
Summer program experiences often lay the foundation for the future. Reid’s Gift summer programs allow participants ages 14 and up with disabilities to design the framework of their weekly experience. They choose a topic and research, organize and carry out the activities. With locations in Thousand Oaks and Chatsworth, the 5-year-old program turns the table on traditional camps, says Tina Ebsen, program director for Ventura County’s program. “Our participants have a big voice here. We ask them ‘What do you want to get out of this experience?’ and we help facilitate them to achieve it,” she says.
Projects have run the gamut, and one recurring theme is a coffeehouse experience, complete with food, beverages and entertainment. “They plan the menu, learn how to handle food, prepare a budget, visit coffee houses to see how they operate,” Ebsen says. At week’s end, the teens invite parents and community members to visit their coffeehouse and enjoy an open mic performance with music and artwork displays.
Other groups have staged theatrical productions that involved writing a script, designing costumes and sets and organizing a concession stand. They also met with experts in the theatrical field who provided professional guidance throughout the week. “What the kids came up with is so fun and insightful – and they did it all themselves in a matter of five days,” says Ebsen. Along the way, interpersonal skills are honed as conflicts are resolved and honest and caring relationships are built.
One of the major benefits of this type of program is that it allows the teens to test their wings – something their families might not always encourage. “I hear parents who infantilize too much, worry that their children can’t handle certain situations and will hurt themselves,” Ebsen says. “Can they use a sewing machine? Knives? Isn’t it risky? I say, of course they can! They want to do these things and they understand they need to follow safety guidelines. We need to give them credit and allow them this chance.”
Traditional, with a Twist
While summer programs focus on the child’s needs, consider what these breaks do for caregivers. “For many parents, the week that their dependent loved one is at camp is the only little break that they receive from the rigors of day-to-day care and supervision,” says Kelly Kunsek, camp director at AbilityFirst’s Camp Paivika. “Many parents report that knowing their child is not only in a safe place at camp, but really having a great time away, gives them the freedom to relax and recharge, reconnect with spouses and their other children that do not have disabilities.”
Since 1947, the Pasadena-based nonprofit has operated Camp Paivika in the San Bernardino Forest near Crestline, and has offered an overnight traditional camp experience including horseback riding, archery and creative and performing arts for people of all ages with developmental and physical disabilities.
During Camp Paivika’s open house, held on-site in June, prospective campers and their parents can meet other families, ask questions of the staff and walk among the tall trees, past the swimming pool and outdoor amphitheater. This year, the buzz will be about Camp Paivika’s fully accessible dual-rider zipline, the first on the West Coast. Thrilling campers with a glide over a ridge to enjoy magnificent 180-degree views of the forest, the two ziplines are side by side. One is standard and the other features a race car-style seat with harnesses and head piece so that even someone with quadriplegia can ride.
After all, everyone deserves a bird’s-eye view.
For all campers, summer programs should inspire a similar view of a future spread out before them full of adventure, joy and camaraderie. Lessons learned, experiences shared and personal connections made can continue to inspire and uplift campers throughout the school year and beyond.
Brenda Rees is a freelance writer living in Eagle Rock. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Westways magazine and Arroyo Monthly.