Spreading the Benefits of a Camp Experience: Reaching Campers with Special Needs

posted in: Blog on:

Camp experiences offer participants the chance to develop new skills, foster relationships, and grow confidence and independence. Campers living with physical, emotional, or intellectual challenges stand to gain those same benefits from camp. And while some Maine camps are not equipped to serve campers who face such challenges, others camps are. The experience can be transformative.

Maine boasts several camps geared specifically for individuals with disabilities or other challenges to functioning. Among the best known of such operations is Pine Tree Camp, which operates under the auspices of the Pine Tree Society. On the edge of North Pond in Rome, the camp was founded in 1945 and offers a full slate of traditional camp opportunities in a barrier-free setting. Overnight and day camp offerings throughout the summer reach children and adults alike. Special programming also takes place during the off-season.

Camp CaPella, located in Dedham was founded in 1960.

Also serving children and adults with disabilities is Camp CaPella, located in Dedham and founded in 1960. On the shores of Phillips Lake, the camp promotes the philosophy that the environment maximizes “abilities and willingness for participation, and is appropriate to foster [campers’] self-awareness, growth, and development.”

Heidi Riggs, Camp CaPella’s director, says the eight one-week sessions host approximately 25 campers, about half of whom stay overnight. The fully accessible property enables participants to enjoy swimming, boating, and fishing, as well as other traditional camp activities, she says. Riggs says weeks are divided according to age groups. “But within that week, we don’t break down by disability.”

“They may be in wheelchairs or braces; none of that matters,” Riggs says.

The camp relies significantly on donations to provide its programming, she says. “We don’t turn anyone away based on ability to pay.”

Riggs says the camp’s staff – which consists of one counselor for every two campers – includes college students pursuing education careers, including special ed. Other staff “come back year after year,” and work in local schools during the off-season, she says.

Camp CaPella gives many participants a chance to enjoy activities otherwise unavailable to them, Riggs says. “We give them that experience that those of us who live in Maine take for granted.”

Unlike Pine Tree Camp and Camp CaPella, Camp Alsing was recently established. Camp Alsing serves youngsters who face high-functioning autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, or other social communication challenges. According to Director Emily Chaleff, the program was created based on need: co-founder Andy Lilienthal, who owns and directs Camp Winnebago in Fayette, encountered youngsters who would benefit from a more specially tailored camp experience. Camp Alsing was born. It offers two two-week residential sessions, based at Unity College.

Chaleff says that about 50 percent of Alsing campers hail from Maine.

“With the support of caring, loving staff people – coaches – we wanted to create a space where campers are comfortable, understood, and have a great time,” Chaleff says.

It’s all about connections, she says, posing the questions of “how does what I do make you feel and how does what you do make me feel?”

Clinical guidance is offered by nationally known psychiatrist and pediatrician Matthew Siegel, who has done extensive work in autism and child development. Professional staff also includes two speech language pathologists.

Chaleff says that while about 50 percent of campers hail from Maine, the 2018 list included campers from Michigan, Ohio, and South Carolina, as well as more nearby states. Her conversations with prospective 2019 families include one from Switzerland, she says.

The camp experience creates self-confidence – “a change in perception of self,” Chaleff says. Staff also works to address campers’ anxiety, which is a significant comorbid issue with autism, she says. “They all have anxiety because they don’t understand the world around them. Being with other kids like them alleviates anxiety immediately.”

Each two-week session hosts about 35 campers. Coaches are frequently graduate students studying speech pathology or occupational therapy, Chaleff says.

Parent response to their kids’ experiences has been “awesome,” she says. Camp Alsing is creating an environment in which their kids can thrive. A first-time camper, “so nervous about leaving home” had a challenging first day at camp and then was “like a different kid,” Chaleff says. For the first time, he could say, “‘Oh, I have people.’”

Kids facing a variety of challenges may also find that they fit in at more traditional camps. Mike Douglass, director of Camp Bishopswood in Hope, says the camp is particularly appealing because of its lower cost. Douglass says if he is aware ahead of time of a child’s particular challenges he will engage the family in a conversation about whether the camp can meet that youngster’s needs.

Generally that includes discussing what supports a child receives at school, Douglass says.

Mike Douglass, director of Camp Bishopswood in Hope.

And for kids who Douglass feels will succeed, “I think they have a great time. They come to camp and it allows them to be a kid.”

Douglass says that as more and more youngsters are identified as being on the autism spectrum, he has looked closely at how Camp Bishopswood’s program can meet those kids’ needs. That includes creating a “chill out zone” on the back porch of a camp building. Bean bags, Legos, and a puzzle area will give kids a place to regroup.

“A lot of times camp is so intense, and there’s so much going on, they need that regrouping time,” Douglass says.

When Douglass feels a child might need more support than the camp can offer, he says he often suggests Camp Alsing, or Camp Stomping Ground, in the Catskills outside Binghamton, New York.

In Brooks, Camp Forest is a small camp that offers both overnight expeditions and day programming, all designed to teach wilderness living skills. The camp is operated by the nonprofit Expanding Opportunities based in Belfast. The organization’s Assistant Director, Catherine Sanders, says Camp Forest recently offered about six weeks of summer camp; two weeks were overnight expedition programs and the other four were day camp. The 2019 schedule is expanded, and includes a watershed expedition (overnight or day option), a “hills to sea” expedition (overnight or day), plus a broad range of day camp offerings.

Camp Forest teaches part of the curriculum of the Junior Maine Guide Program, an outdoor living skills program established in 1937.

About a quarter of campers faced behavioral challenges, Sanders says.

“There’s lots of one-on-one,” she says. That interaction can “be beneficial for kids who might be struggling with behavioral issues.” Those issues vary, she says, but are more often social anxiety and ADHD.

Camp Forest also teaches part of the curriculum of the Junior Maine Guide Program, an outdoor living skills program established in 1937 by the Maine State Legislature. Participants can learn an array of skills, from fire and shelter building to plant identification and map and compass skills.

Sanders says the camp’s overall mission is “too build self-efficacy among children.”

Developing outdoor living skills – through immersion in Maine’s natural beauty – “can give kids more opportunities to grow and become confident and become self-sufficient,” Sanders says.

“Our ultimate goal is to build confidence.”

It is a goal common to camps across the state – regardless of location or size or population served. Maine camps want their participants to play and learn and grow. And if those participants have special needs or challenges, there still may very well be a committed camp community to welcome them for a life-changing summer experience.

- back to top -