Camp confidence

There's a special needs camp to suit every child

Ahh, the fond memories of summer camp: mosquitoes, songs by the campfire and postcards home. It’s a special time for most children. For Jesse Grunzeweig of Richmond Hill, Ont., who has Downs Syndrome, eight summers spent at Camp Robin Hood changed him forever. “From the first moment Jesse got on the bus it was a positive and exciting experience. He transformed from a passive, reserved, overprotected child to an outgoing, adventure-seeking kid…he became a responsible and positive role model,” says mom, Fay Grunzeweig. “He gained self-motivation, self-esteem, friends, his speech improved tremendously, and he learned that the world does not revolve around an individual, but that it takes many to make up this world.”

Different types of camps

Special needs camps focus on a specific segment of the population. There are camps for children with physical and learning disabilities, social, emotional and behavioural problems, autism and specific chronic illnesses like cancer and diabetes. Many of these camps accept children with a variety of needs, while some only accept campers with specific problems. Overall, however, “special needs camps don’t differ that much in terms of what the experience of camp is all about: making friends and memories,” says Lyssa Caine, owner and director of Camp Joshua in Rockwood, Ont., and co-chair of the Ontario Camping Association’s (OCA) Special Needs Resource Committee. “We all have needs; it just depends on the degree of help that is needed.” And for nearly all kids, their dream is, “to meet someone just like me.” says Melinda E. Evans, executive director of Camp Awakening, in the Haliburton Highlands, which caters to children with physical disabilities.

Within these types you’ll find even more options when it comes cost, camp philosophy, location and duration of stay. There are private camps, day camps, camps run by provincial or national organizations, camps that work toward integration, non-profit and for-profit camps, religious camps, camps that run weekend sessions and camps that accept kids for the entire summer.

Staff/camper ratio

Many mainstream camps have a camper to staff ratio as high as 10:1 or 8:1. For special needs camps, “Depending on the specialized camp and the activity in which the campers are engaged, ratios typically range from 4:1 to 1:1,” says Drew Gulyas, director of the Special Needs Camp Sub-Class of the OCA. “And in some exceptional cases, when medical or professional staff are included in the ratio calculation, there may be more staff then campers.” Reach For the Rainbow, for example, works with selected summer camps across Ontario to provide integrated opportunities for kids with developmental and/or physical disabilities. Support is 1:1, allowing campers full participation in all programs, while having any unique needs met. Camp Awakening, has a 4:7 staff to camper ratio while the ratio at Camp Kodiak, for kids with learning disabilities (LD), attention deficit disorders (ADD), developmental delays and autism, is two campers to one adult.

Activities and programming

Special needs camps offer programming that is nurturing, supportive and completely non-competitive. “We focus primarily on activities that will allow for a ‘challenge by choice’ philosophy and that help children push themselves beyond what they thought they could accomplish,” says Henri Audet, executive director of Camp Kirk, located near Kirkfield, Ont. for kids with ADD, LD, developmental delays and autism. David Stoch, owner and director of Camp Kodiak, near Parry Sound, Ont., concurs. “We emphasize co-operation and sportsmanship, rather than competition, proving a good deal of structure while still allowing campers to pursue their own interests through electives.”

Camp Hidden Valley in Maine, for instance, has a learn-to-swim pool designed for children with braces, wheelchairs and other special needs. “Our special needs campers …learn they can do anything and everything able-bodied children can,” says Tom Karger, director of camping for the Fresh Air Fund, which funds camps such as Hidden Valley. You can find swimming, drama, arts and crafts, painting, computers, canoeing, archery, wall-climbing, pottery, wheelchair racing, dancing, tennis, martial arts and golf at a special needs camp. Easter Seals camps even offer life-skills programs, such as resume writing, shopping and organizing events.

Benefits of camp

The benefits of camp are the same for all campers: increased self-confidence and independence; a widened circle of friends; freedom of choice and self-expression; a chance to enjoy some fresh air and learn new skills — all in a safe environment. “Our campers go home with a feeling of achievement which spills over into the other 52 weeks of their lives,” says Evans.

Special needs camps also give children the opportunity to be around other kids who are “like” them. Lou Mendelssohn, of Oakville, Ont., has sent her 15-year-old son, Geoff, who has Aspergers Syndrome, to Camp Kodiak for five years running. “My son once said to me: ‘No offence, mum, but this camp is the best place in the world because I can be myself.’ That, alone, was worth every cent!” says Mendelssohn.

Fees

Camp costs vary widely, from a few hundred dollars for a few days to thousands of dollars for multiple-week sessions. However, scholarships and bursaries are available. Some camps, like Camp Awakening, subsidize in cases of need. “We have never turned a child away because of money,” says Evans. And some camps offer built-in subsidies; Camp Kirkoffers every camper a subsidy of several hundred dollars. Easter Seals camps ask families to pay what they can for their 10-day, $2,000 programs, with fundraising dollars covering the remainder. The Fresh Air Fund provides free summer vacations to American and Canadian children from low-income communities, while some camps, such as the YMCA’s Camp PineCrest, offer financial aid on a first come, first-served basis. Most campers, however, pay the full fee. And, most parents will agree, it’s well worth it. “Although this camp is not cheap, I could not replace the value with all the professional doctors in the field of autism,” says Mendelssohn.

With some solid research and mutual understanding between you, your child and the camp director, your camper-to-be will be well on her way to creating lifelong memories. And, as mom Fay Grunzeweig, says, just remember: “All camps are not for all kids, but all kids should go to camp.”

Finding a camp that fits

The Ontario Camping Association maintains a list of special needs camps that meet and maintain high provincial standards. As well, the website of the Canadian Camping Association www.ccamping.org has helpful tips on choosing suitable camps and the benefits of camp. The Summer Camp Handbook by Dr. Christopher Thurber is a great resource book for parents considering sending their child(ren) to camp. Here are a few camps and organizations to get you started:

Learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder
Blooming Acres 705-487-3076; bloomingacres.com
Camp Kodiak 905-569-7595; campkodiak.com
Camp Kirk 416-782-3310; campkirk.com
Camp Towhee 416-486-8055; integra.on.ca
Camp Winston 905-707-3427; campwinston.com
Camp Robin Hood 416-736.4443;camprobinhood.ca

Behaviour, social and emotional issues
Camp Winston 905-707-3427; campwinston.com
Camp Robin Hood 416-736.4443;camprobinhood.ca

Intellectual handicap
Shadow Lake 905-640-6432; shadowlakecentre.ca

Pervasive development delay/Autism
Blooming Acres 705-487-3076; bloomingacres.com
Camp Winston 905-707-3427; campwinston.com
Camp Kirk 416-782-3310; campkirk.com
Camp Towhee 416-486-8055; integra.on.ca
Camp Robin Hood 416-736.4443;camprobinhood.ca
Camp Kodiak 905-569-7595; campkodiak.com

Physical disabilities
Camp Awakening 416-487-8400; campawakening.com
Blooming Acres 705-487-3076; bloomingacres.com
Camp Robin Hood 416-736.4443;camprobinhood.ca