Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Summer Camps: When Severe Disability Is NOT An Issue

Guest Post by Sarah Hart via Phil Dzialo, who writes a bodacious blog called Healing, Empowering and Thriving as a parent of a young man who is disabled. Thanks Phil, for allowing this guest post to be reprinted on Everyone Outdoors! And thanks to Sarah for her terrific work on behalf of kids with severe disabilities at a summer camp in Wisconsin. She reveals what is truly possible! This is a long blog post (and I'm having technical difficulties with Blogger - note there are no paragraph splits!) so start here and continue on at Healing, Empowering and Thriving for the entire amazing story with all the essential tips on how to best find a summer camp that will meet your needs.
Going to camp is a treasured childhood memory for many of us. Nights spent around campfires roasting marshmallows and days filled with activities, anything from weaving lanyards to horseback riding to swimming, glow like fireflies in the back of our minds. Far from behind a relic of the past, summer camps today offer a wide variety of programs, ranging from the traditional (archery, tent-pitching, canoeing, fishing, hiking) to more specialized (computers, photography, ballet). Camp is such a specialized series of events, and such an event in itself, that it may seem that it is specifically designed for campers without special needs. As such, parents of children with disabilities, whether mild or severe, often feel like there is no place for their child in a camp setting.
As a seven-year veteran of camps for kids with special needs, everything ranging from autism and Asperger’s syndrome to Down syndrome to brain injuries to cerebral palsy to rare genetic disorders, spinal cord injuries, involved medical conditions, and muscular dystrophy to hearing impairment and visual impairment, I am here to tell you that not only is it possible for your loved one to attend camp, it is possible for them to thrive in a camp setting. Nike used to use a slogan that I particularly liked: “Impossible is nothing.” While they no longer use it to sell shoes and athletic gear, I still use it when I talk about camps for kids with disabilities. And it’s completely true. Phil wrote a post on his blog earlier talking about how kids like his son Adam, who were basically “nursing home material… save the commitment of (the) parents” and how they’re not the kind of kids who go to camp. Except that every kind of kid is the kind who can go to camp.
At the moment I work at a camp for kids and adults with disabilities in Wisconsin. The particular program I work with is the respite camp, where we accept children, teens, and adults with medical conditions, disabilities, or behavioral problems that make them ineligible to attend most other camps or respite programs. Our program is one-to-one, one camper to one counselor, and our campers range in age from 3 up, with no real upper limit – I’ve worked with campers in their eighties! Our campers have a wide variety of conditions, including autism, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, brain injury, PTSD, Down syndrome, among others. We see campers with severe physical and mental involvement as well as campers with severe behavioral involvement. Our campers vary in the degree of assistance they need - some need little to no assistance with personal care and participation in activities, and others need total assistance for all camp participation and personal care. We have campers with feeding tubes, catheters, Port-a-Caths, tracheostomies and other various "ostomies", brittle diabetes, intractable epilepsy, self-injurious behaviors, DNR orders, and more. We have two nurses on staff during the summer and usually one CNA to accompany them in the summer; during the "off" season when we are only running weekend programs, we have one full-time nurse and usually a second nurse for check-ins on Friday night.
Our camp offers a wide variety of “traditional” camp activities; swimming, cooking over the fire, painting, soccer, volleyball, paper crafts, and community trips, just to name a few. All of our activities can be adapted to any range of function. We have a dance every week, and everyone goes on an overnight camping trip, sleeping under the stars at one of our lovely campsites, set back into our 400-acre forest; natural beauty is everywhere. In addition to the traditional camp activities, we offer a high-ropes course, a travine swing, and a climbing wall with a zipline. The ropes course is set up so that everything except for the high-ropes elements is accessible to campers with physical disabilities. Our goal is to provide a special, fulfilling experience for our campers. If a camper is happiest when observing activities, or walking around camp, we make it happen. If a camper loves all the activities, we encourage them to participate to the highest degree. If a camper is unable to sit in a wheelchair for an extended period of time, we improvise. Some campers hang out on blankets or beanbags; others may bring their own positioning chairs. No matter how they are positioned, our campers are always in the middle of the action. Our one-on-one setup guarantees it. It is my belief that camps for kids with disabilities are an extremely valuable resource. Camps provide breaks for parents and caregivers, while at the same time providing new experiences for campers. Campers have the opportunity to make friends, try new things, and have adventures. Camps provide the kind of experiences you want to remember.
Here is just a short list of the potential experiences available at camps for kids or adults with disabilities: cook outdoors; write songs or poetry; identify birds by their calls; canoeing; tour a local monument or museum; archery; put on plays; camp out in tents; swimming; sculpting clay or stone; play Earth Ball, soccer, hockey, tennis, baseball, or volleyball; build models; tie-dye, tandem bike trips; games like tag or relay races; attend concerts or other live performances; play instruments; pontoon-boating or paddle-boating; group sing-a-longs; murder mystery evenings; purchasing items from the camp store; campfires; and spending time on high or low ropes courses. And that may just be the beginning. Remember when I said that I loved the slogan “impossible is nothing”? Well, it’s true. Throughout the seven years I’ve been working at camps for kids with disabilities, I have been witness to many things that I’m sure most people would find impossible. Here are two examples.
CONTINUE THIS ARTICLE AT HEALING, EMPOWERING and THRIVING! (If it is no longer on the front page, search the title of this post in the search box there.) Lots of great advice on how to shop for the right summer camp experience - DON'T MISS OUT!

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