Camp. It’s not just a prerequisite for working parents each summer. Studies have shown that kids who attend summer camp develop compassion and strengthen their own resilience, learn leadership skills and become more responsible in their actions, all while having a lot of fun. And even if (especially if) your child has special needs, camp can still be a great — and valuable — experience.
“All children, regardless of ability and challenge, should have the opportunity to engage in recreational activities with their peers, separate and apart from a school setting,” said Risa C. Paskoff, executive director of Aaron’s Acres, a nonprofit organization that hosts camps in Berks, Dauphin and Lancaster Counties for kids with special needs. Summer camp, she explained, allows kids to engage in activities that promote socialization and communication among their peers.
“Learning to be as independent as possible, trying new things, being in a team setting, exploring activities that they might not otherwise be exposed to, all result in a child who has more confidence and feels good about himself,” she added.
Being prepared so you’re less scared
Of course, sending a child off to camp can be intimidating for any parent, and beyond scary for those whose child has special needs. Paskoff explained that her program director meets with both the parents and the child well before the start of camp in order to develop a relationship with them.
“The biggest obstacle is demonstrating to the parents that we can handle the child’s medical or behavioral challenges,” she said. “For the parent who has a younger child, school might be the only setting in which the parent leaves the child and doesn’t remain with him. Sending a child to a camp program that is outside, with no doors, gates or fences can be overwhelming for a parent who is new to [summer camp].”
That tactic of meeting with camp personnel ahead of time is shared by other local camp directors who work with children with special needs. Susan Resavy, the director of family services at the Hospice of Central Pennsylvania, oversees Camp Dragonfly, a bereavement camp for children. First launched 23 years ago through Pinnacle Hospital, the weekend-long residential camp is offered free of charge each June to children and teens who have lost someone with whom they were very close.
One thing Resavy stressed is that they meet with all participants ahead of time. “We screen all kids,” she said. “The child needs to know what Camp Dragonfly is and why they’re going. We don’t want to blindside them. We don’t want kids to think that they’re going to a swimming camp.”
Kids will get to swim at either of Camp Dragonfly’s two locations — one in Halifax and one in Bethel — and they’ll enjoy campfires, too. The program provides “typical” camp experiences along with its support groups. When asked why kids who are grieving the loss of a loved one should be considered to have a special need and attend a camp focused on that need, Resavy was quick to answer.
“There are misconceptions that kids don’t grieve, or that kids don’t understand what’s going on. They feel different when grieving,” she said. “They [grieve] differently when they’re with their peers. When they see kids their own age, they see common threads. They’re not sure how to feel, how to express their feelings. It’s very powerful.
“The subject is heavy, but we have a lot of support,” she continued. “And we’ll discuss. ‘It’s fine to be mad, but what can you do besides hit your sister?’ Our intention is not to make the child cry. They don’t have to spill their guts [here], but they get a lot just by listening as a group develops. They do more sharing. They take big, important steps to talk about loss in a safe place.”
At Aaron’s Acres, they also are focused on creating a safe environment while providing their campers with the most realistic summer camp experience possible.
“We constantly look at what activities take place in a “typical” camp program and try to replicate it at our summer camp component,” Paskoff said. “Our philosophy is that every child can do every camp-like activity. The staff just need to implement accommodations depending upon each child’s ability and disability.”
With many special needs camps in our region making that the commitment, our kids can enjoy the same long-lasting benefits of this summertime ritual as their “typical” peers. To find a camp that’s right for your child, check out our “Health/Special Needs” camps within our listings, under both the Day and Residential Camps sections.
Questions to ask and actions to take before sending your child to camp.
- What are the goals of the special needs camp?
- May I meet with a camp representative in person? This can provide a good picture of how the staff manages children with disabilities.
- What are your staff’s credentials?
- May I talk to parents from last year?
- What is your policy on electronics? Do you allow your counselors and volunteers to post on social media?
- How can we reach the camp director during the camp session?
- How will you handle home sickness?
–provided by Risa C. Paskoff and Susan Resavy