Keys to Finding the Right Camp for Children with Special Needs

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire offer a variety of summer camp programs specifically designed for children with special needs. But those camps are not the only options. With a can-do attitude and proactive communication, parents can often create inclusive camp opportunities for a child with special needs in community and theme-based camp venues.

When looking for camp programs for her son, Cindy Donelan of Fitchburg was most concerned about the risks of him getting injured. Cole, now 13, has Williams syndrome and arthritis, as well as global delays and a heart defect associated with Williams syndrome. But Cindy didn’t let those concerns prevent Cole from experiencing camp. Over the past several years, Cole has attended three camp programs during the summer months, including skateboard camp, a city recreation department camp, and overnight camp with the Boy Scouts of America.

Inspired by interest

Cole’s favorite is skateboard camp at the Ryan C. Joubert Memorial Skatepark in Fitchburg. The camp is held for two hours a day, four days a week for three weeks during the summer. Cole has been going for nearly seven years, Donelan said. This camp is drop-off, but many parents stay, including Donelan. Before registering Cole for this camp, Donelan explained to the counselors her concerns that her son may get injured in a fall and that he might get distracted, but would participate in the ways he was able. They instructors were, and continue to be, very supportive of Cole and work with his abilities, she said.

“My advice would be to find a camp that your child would be interested in. Be open with the instructors and counselors as to your child’s abilities. I never thought Cole would skateboard, but here we are seven years later still skating,” she said.

Friends and fun

“My search for camps depended on his likes and things he enjoyed doing and participating in,” she noted. Also, Donelan felt it was important to provide Cole with opportunities to be around his neuro-typical friends. The city recreational program is a drop-off camp held at local playgrounds. He started attending this program because his older siblings were going and he wanted to be there. Over time, his siblings lost interest in the program, but Cole knew his friends were attending and wanted to go, Donelan said.

Communication was essential to ensuring Cole could participate fully and safely in the program’s activities. The park program he attended from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. five days a week had a small group of kids, and Donelan felt comfortable with the adult-to-child ratio. Activities included nature hikes, games, crafts, and field trips.

“He attended these field trips without me,” she said, explaining that Cole carried a cell phone with him in case he needed her to pick him up early.

Her greatest concern with this camp was whether Cole would eat. The city has a free lunch program during the summer, but Cole was not a fan of the school-style lunches. So, Donelan would send food she knew he would eat.

Overnight adventure

The idea of overnight camp can make many parents of children with special needs nervous. Cole had a helpful asset in this as his father is one of the local troop leaders for the Boy Scouts of America. When Cole attended overnight camp at Camp Wanocksett in Dublin, N.H., the past two years, his dad was nearby if he needed help.

“However, much of the guidance my husband gave was given to Cole as it would be to any other Scout,” Donelan noted.

While working on merit badges during the day, Cole had a Counselor-in-Training (CIT), usually a 14- to 15-year-old Boy Scout, working with him. This was an arrangement made in advance when the leaders visited the camp prior to the week the troop was scheduled to attend. The CIT would shadow Cole to ensure he was where he needed to be when he needed to be there, and help Cole as needed. The CIT was like a one-to-one support aide for Cole. The camp staff picked one CIT to work with him throughout the week, and help from the CIT did not cost any additional money, Donelan said.

“The Boy Scouts are very accommodating and want all of their Scouts to enjoy themselves and come back again,” she said.

Donelan believes Camp Wanocksett has been a wonderful experience for her son, providing him with the opportunity to be among many different kids. He learned new skills, such as wood carving and sports, and also built a rocket ship.

“He did so well last summer that we are considering sending him for two weeks this year. One with his troop and one week Provisional or Provo, when he goes to camp on his own!” she said.

Working parents

Drew Phelps of San Diego knows well the juggle parents face in coordinating summer supervision and care for kids while parents work.

“The primary reason for camps is because both parents work full time, so both of our kids need to be occupied full days in spring and summer. We are divorced now, which makes it even more important to have good camps,” he said.

Phelps’s daughter Riley turned 13 in January. Riley has spastic quadriplegia, a form of cerebral palsy that affects function of all four limbs. According to her dad, Riley speaks fairly well and is in the correct academic grade for her age (7th), needing some remediation assistance in certain subjects, such as math and English. Because of the spastic quadriplegia, she is not capable of feeding herself, walking, writing, and other tasks that require mobility. She can operate her power chair, assist in feeding herself, and use a touchscreen computer. Riley recently had two rods surgically placed in her spine to straighten it so she can sit up straight, socialize better, work better in a walker, and be healthier.

Phelps is an active dad who loves surfing and he doesn’t let Riley’s challenges prevent her from fun and adventure. Riley has been participating in adaptive surfing with several organizations each summer since she was 6. She also has years of experience skiing and at skate parks.

“We considered special needs camps and Riley does at least one each summer, but we want her to blend in and get along with typical kids also,” Phelps said.

Riley’s parents worked with the local YMCA to coordinate an inclusion aide for spring break and two weeks of camp in the summer. She needs 100% one-on-one assistance when involved in anything sport- or activity-related. Her parents asked that she be toileted, fed, and supervised closely for safety precautions. There has been no extra charge at YMCA for the inclusion aide, and at camps where she has no aide, the counselors and many kids help her, he said.

She has participated in rock climbing and ice skating, as well as a skate camp, where she uses her adaptive WCMX wheelchair. Riley also attends several weeks of summer programming at Boys and Girls Club.

Phelps recommends parents interview camp management to discuss what can be offered for supports, what safety options are in place, and what strategies will be used to involve the child and integrate them socially with the other kids.

“There will be some uncomfortable conversations, and you’ll have to push for things not already offered, but every kid deserves to do what all of the other kids do,” he said.