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Special Needs Awareness

Summer Camp Savvy for Families with Kids with Special Needs

How to Find the Right Camp for your Kid

March 01, 2011
March it may be but summer is right around corner. Yippee! Summertime means sunshine, sunblock and summer Camp. While the sun and Coppertone generally work themselves out, summer camp needs a bit of planning, especially for kids with Special Needs. Many camps are enrolling campers right now so don't delay in securing a great summertime camp experience for your child. But where to start?

Choosing a summer camp

Brigitta Adkins, executive director for the American Camp Association Indiana, offers some worthwhile advice for parents looking to enroll their children with special needs in a summer camp.

First, she says, don't assume that because a child has a special need that he or she must attend a specialty camp that is solely for kids with special needs. For instance, a child who has asthma doesn't have to be limited to asthma-specific camps.

"Don't assume that because a camp doesn't list a particular special need that your child can't attend. Many camps can in fact incorporate special needs into their program. Many camps follow the concept of inclusiveness, allowing those with special needs to not feel so different and helping those without special needs to be aware and accepting of those with needs," Adkins says.

Adkins also advises parents to make a list of their child's needs before contacting the camp. This will help the parents and camp director work together as a team to create options that will best suit the child. Of course some camps may not be able to accommodate every special need, but it is worth checking into it she says.

To choose the ideal camp for a particular kid, About Special Kids parent liaison Suzanne Aaron says parents should take their child's strengths and challenges into account. She also says camps specific to a special need will give good details about what kids the camp is intended to serve and often have a thorough application process that will further help families determine if the camp is a good fit.

Aaron says another good way to assure a child will be attending a safe camp is to see if they are accredited by the American Camp Association (ACA).

"I think camp is a really good idea for all kids. I think for kids with special needs, it's even more important," says Tim Nowak, ACA board member and program director of Jameson Camp. He believes summer camp provides a good opportunity for kids to develop social skills, friendships and character.

He also says that most camps are more than happy to give families tours of their facilities to further aid in the camp decision-making process and increase a family's comfort level with the camp. "That can be a really big thing for a child with special needs because there's a lot of nervousness and anxiety about [going to camp]. If you get to see it before all the kids get here, it makes it easier on the family," he says.

Tami Wanninger, director of children and therapy services for Noble of Indiana, adds that camps need to have trained staff that knows how to work with kids with special needs, are able to adapt to meet the needs of the campers, and can modify the schedule for kids, like those with autism who have a difficult time transitioning from one activity to the next.

Wanninger also says parents need to educate themselves on the types of camps available, ask the right questions of the camp staff, learn staff-to-camper ratios, and understand their child's interests before enrolling in a program.

Fortunately a search for area camps is easier than a broad Google search. A few online spots that provide lists of area camps for parents to browse include About Special Kids (www.aboutspecialkids.org), the Department of Education (www.doe.in.gov) and ACA (http://find.acacamps.org/finding_a_camp.php).

Types of camps available

A quick look at these sites reveals that despite the poor economy, there still is a good variety of summer camp options for kids of all abilities. Families will be able to find everything from overnight camps to day camps to camps that occur just a few hours a week.

Noble of Indiana is one organization that offers broad summer camp programming for area kids with special needs. Of note, Noble of Indiana also considers their camps inclusive so they make space available to kids of typical abilities as well. It's summer programming includes a social skills camp, art camp, handwriting camp, career camp and a one-week sports camp designed to get kids thinking about Special Olympics. In addition, the organization offers other traditional-type camps where Wanninger says kids get to canoe, work on social and daily living skills, and other fun activities associated with typical summer camp experiences.

Meaningful Day Services, a company that provides therapy and support for individuals with developmental disabilities, is another summer camp resource parents of children with autism or other developmental disabilities may not be aware of. Jennifer Jones, behavior analyst and director of training at the company, says their camp is an ABA, or applied behavior analysis program, designed to help kids retain skills they learned during school.

"Our ABA therapist will do an assessment prior to camp and will follow the child's IEP (individualized education plan)," Jones explains. "It's not a typical summer camp. It's very education based and essential skills based." She says the kids work on applying these skills into a natural environment. The camp incorporates recreation therapists, music therapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists, among others.

Meaningful Day Services also offers a summer program for teens that works on their transition into adulthood. The focus is on daily living skills, cooking, social skills, and music and recreation therapy.

Families looking for a more traditional experience for their camper may be interested in a program like Jameson Camp. Located on 100 acres on the west side of Indianapolis, Jameson Camp has been around since 1928 and serves about 500 kids each summer. The residential camp focuses on character development for youth ages 7 to 17.

The camp offers a variety of activities for kids such as archery, culinary arts, outdoor recreation, challenge course, and more. Jameson Camp, which trains its staff to serve children with minor social or emotional challenges, offers traditional camp sessions as well as a Wellness Camp that focuses on healthy living, nutrition and exercise, and the Tataya Mato camp for kids impacted by HIV/AIDS.

Affording camp

These are obviously just a few of the many camps available to area kids with special needs. Of course finding a camp is one thing, affording it is another. Before throwing in the towel before summer even starts, know there are ways to make summer camp more affordable.

"I recommend parents talk to the camp director. Most camps are people-friendly organizations and are good at being there for the parents," says Nowak. He says many camps have scholarship programs or offer fees on a sliding scale.

Wanninger agrees that most camps offer some type of scholarship program. She notes that Noble of Indiana camps are $200 per week but says the organization writes a lot of grants to help offset the cost for families. In fact, last year the organization gave out $22,000 in camp scholarships. "We will sit down and determine if the family has a need. I have never turned anybody away for a scholarship," she says, adding that they offer some full scholarships and some partial ones.

That's good news. Even better news: summer is on the horizon. Time to think camp.

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Carrie Bishop is a freelance writer and mother of two young sons whose daily antics inspire her work and her life. Contact her at freelancewritercarrie@gmail.com.

Tags: Camp, In This Issue, Special Needs

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