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Summer Fun for Everyone

By: Malky Haimoff

Published in Building Blocks, December 2010

Who doesn’t have a good time in summer camp? Despite the mosquitoes, skunks, and the dreaded rainy days, we look back on those days of sports, swimming and campfires with fond memories. Even then, we knew we were making camp friendships that would last a lifetime. Every child should have such an experience! The camp experience is even more important for children with special needs, because they gain self-confidence as they try and master new activities, and increased independence. Yet, there are other considerations that have to be taken into account.

DETERMINING READINESS

How does a parent determine when their child with special needs is ready for camp? Stephen Glicksman, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at Women’s League Community Residences with decades of experience in special needs camping, says that “A bigger question might be, ‘How can parents know when they are ready to send their child to camp?’ If parents feel they can use a break to recharge their batteries or allow for some extra time to focus on the needs of their other children or each other, and the camp agrees that the child would fit in well to their program, then I think it’s worth giving camp a try.”

FINDING THE RIGHT CAMP

Gary Shulman is Program Director at Resources for Children with Special Needs (RCSN), an organization that helps families of children with special needs understand, navigate and access services for their children. He advises parents to visit the camp while in session to determine if it is suitable for their child. This can provide real insight into how a camp operates and what the camper population is like. If a visit is not possible, ask the camp to send a video. It is important to inquire about medical staffing and training. How is medicine given? Can they handle other medical needs? Will parents be given the opportunity to train the staff to put on orthoses or use specialized equipment? In case of emergency, is there a medical facility nearby? How are a child’s dietary restrictions handled? Find out whether your child’s various therapies can be continued over the summer, and if there is an approved special education program on campus. Another positive sign is a high rate of returning staff members each summer. That usually means that there is sufficient support to give each child the attention and special care needed. Mr. Shulman recommends joining a parent support group where members can share their children’s camping experiences and offer first-hand advice on the various options available.

INCLUSIONARY PROGRAMS

In addition to summer camp programs that deal exclusively with children with special needs, there also are inclusionary programs that put special needs and typically developing children together. Here are two examples: Camp Ruach Hachaim is a camp for high functioning special needs boys. Campers ages 7-30 typically have Downs Syndrome, autism, ADHD and other disabilities, and come from all over the world and all walks of Jewish life. The camp is located in the Catskill Mountains in upstate NY, and shares a campus with Camp Kochavim, a mainstream boys’ camp. The campers with special needs have separate lodging and receive special attention from their own highly-trained staff (camper to staff ratio is 2:1), but they are integrated with Kochavim campers for meals, daily prayers, some activities and special trips. Ohel’s Camp Kaylie is a new, fully integrated camp for kids of all abilities located in Wurtzboro, NY. Its goal is to have a 50-50 mix of typically developing and developmentally disabled children sharing all aspects of the camp experience – meals, sports, daily prayers, arts and crafts, etc. The campers are typically developing 10-16-year-olds as well as children the same age with Downs Syndrome, Asperger’s, and high-functioning autism. There is a boys program in July and a girls program in August. Rabbi Peretz Hochbaum, Director of Camp Kaylie, said he was heartened by the tremendous sense of ruach (spirit) and care that developed among campers in last summer’s two week trial runs.

PREPARATIONS

Once parents decide on a camp, there are various ways to prepare their child for the experience. If the child hasn’t been away from home often, arrange for an overnight or weekend somewhere the child is comfortable, like a relative’s or good friend’s house. Some parents may worry that their child will be homesick being away from home for so long. “Homesickness is a normal part of the camp experience, and tends to come and go with most campers,” says Dr. Glickman. “It especially arises during downtime, such as when your child is going to sleep at night. The rest of the day, your child is having too much fun to be homesick.” So what can a parent do to help their child adjust? Most important is to choose a camp with a warm and supportive staff. Send a favorite object as a reminder of home, or a photo album the child can look at when thinking about home. Informing counselors about bedtime routines is helpful and can give a child comfort. FUNDING OPTIONS Special needs camps can be very expensive and not all parents can afford the luxury. There are some funding options available, but, warns RCSN’s Gary Shulman, “The early bird catches the worm, or in this case, the funding.” Parents should contact their local Developmental Disability Service Office, which receives a small summer camp allowance from the Office for People With Developmental Delays (OPWDD). Be sure to submit applications for family reimbursement no later than December or January for the following summer. Fraternal clubs like Knights of Pythias or Rotary Clubs may provide summer camp grants. In addition, many camps have scholarships or sliding scale fees, or are willing to arrange manageable payment plans. Both Camp Ruach Hachaim and Camp Kaylie try to work with parents on their specific funding needs. Campers in either program sometimes are able to apply respite or day habilitation funds for the camp costs. Parents can find out about various camp options for their children with special needs at a camp fair on January 29th, 2011 organized by RCSN. A comprehensive camp guide will be distributed at the fair, but also can be obtained by contacting Gary Shulman at 212-677-4650 x20. More information about the camp fair is available at www. resourcesnyc.org. Dr. Glicksman reminds us that ultimately, “your child is in camp to have fun. I have found that the best time is had, and the most growth occurs, when parents make sure to choose a camp for their child that can adequately meet their medical, social, nutritional, and behavioral needs, and then just let the camp do what they are trained to do: Show the campers a great time.”

Malky Haimoff is Associate Editor of Building Blocks. She can be reached at malky.haimoff@gmail.com

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