At age 6, Kim Kelly paid her first visit to a special needs residential camp. Kim’s mother, Ruth, says, “My daughter needed to learn to do things on her own, and I needed to let go a little.” It was a positive experience for Kim, who has hearing loss and an orthopedic limitation, and her parents.
For kids with special needs, the benefits of attending camp are amplified, says Sandy Cameron, former editor of Camping Magazine. “Traditional camps do a great job mainstreaming special needs children into their programs, but a special needs camp lets them be with other kids who have similar disabilities.”
Heidi Haldeen, summer program specialist for Easter Seals, agrees. “At a special needs camp, kids have the same opportunities they have at traditional camps. The only difference is the activities are modified according to the campers’ needs. This gives them a chance to shine.”
That’s what 9-year-old Tiffany Wells found when she attended a special needs camp. During the school year, Tiffany, who has cerebral palsy and asthma, played on a softball team and a community bowling league. But because none of the children she played with had a disability, the competition wasn’t always equal.
“Attending a special needs camp allowed Tiffany to compete on more even ground,” says her mother, Linda. The result? “Tiffany saw that she could actually win and come out on top.”
One of the beauties of a special needs camp is that the kids can learn and experience new things with others who have similar disabilities, says Cameron. “It gives them the confidence they need to try new things.”
This was the case with Kim Kelly. When she first went to camp, she was afraid of the water. “She cried just getting her face wet,” says her mother. Through the encouragement of the trained staff, Kim slowly edged her way into the water. “By summer’s end, she was jumping in the deep end and had received her first American Red Cross swimming certificate.”
While some see summer camp as an outlet for fun and recreation, others use it to continue education, pursue therapy goals and teach life skills. This is accomplished one step at a time. “It may mean being 10 minutes late for breakfast so Timmy can learn to tie his shoes by himself,” says Haldeen.
Developing new skills isn’t the only thing kids glean at a special needs camp. They learn about friendships, too. Last year, Tiffany’s cabin mates included a girl with a more severe case of cerebral palsy than Tiffany has. It gave Tiffany the chance to help others. “When we went to the dance, I got to push my new friend around in her chair,” says Tiffany. “I also got to help her eat.”
“One of the best things to be said about camp—any camp—is the opportunity for children to make friends. And for children with special needs, it’s especially important. They find out they are not alone,” says Cameron.
When camp is over, what do the children take with them? For some, new skills. For others, new friends. And for many, the fond memory of a break from their normal routine.
Many campers look forward to returning year after year, says Haldeen. “The minute they drive away, they’re making plans to return next year.”
Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children and four grandchildren.
What to Ask
Before enrolling your child in a camp, visit the facility to make sure it meets your expectations and your child’s needs. Here are a few questions to ask:
- Is the camp accredited by an organization such as the American Camping Association (acacamps.org)?
- Does the camp meet the organization’s standards for kids with special needs, including facility and staffing requirements? What training and experience do the directors and counselors have in working with kids with a need similar to your child’s? Are there other families you can contact for references?
- What is the ratio of counselors to campers? For children with severe disabilities, the ratio should be at least one counselor for every three campers.
- What are the camp’s health and safety procedures? Is there a registered nurse in residence? Who will administer medication? How close is the nearest hospital? Have emergency arrangements been made with the hospital?
- Is the camp able to accommodate special dietary needs? Who will assist with feeding, toileting or other activities of daily living?
- How does the camp ensure an inclusive environment if some activities aren’t appropriate for your child? What alternatives are available?
- What about the camp’s registration fee? (Expense and quality may not go hand-in-hand, because many specialized camps charge only a fraction of actual costs. Ask if there are scholarships available.)
Camp for All • Burton, TX
Hosts day and overnight programs in collaboration with 63 agencies serving children with physical challenges. Campforall.org
Candlelight Ranch • Marble Falls, TX
Hosts outdoor day experiences for special needs youth. Candlelightranch.org
Charis Hills • Sunset, TX
Hosts overnight programs for children with learning differences and social difficulties. Charishills.org
Texas Lions Camp • Kerrville, TX
Hosts overnight programs for children with physical disabilities,
Down syndrome and type 1 diabetes. Lionscamp.com