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Special needs camps encourage independence and exploration

Will Harmon is a 10-year-old boy who loves the Broncos, go-karts and playing on his Wii. He was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth and, at 2 years old, had not yet learned to walk.

Will’s mother, Jodi Harmon, and her son’s physical therapist found a camp that could provide what Will needed to encourage him to walk on his own: the classic summer camp experience with the specialized care that children with disabilities require. With the training he received from Adam’s Camp, Will soon began walking.

“We went to Adam’s Camp again the next year, when Will was 3, and it was the same thing — we just saw tremendous growth in him from that week,” Harmon says.

Adam’s Camp offers both “therapy” and “adventure” camps, designed to spark development for children with special needs. Like other camps catering to special needs kids, it offers a chance to explore and play but also provides some extra support to help children build the practical skills necessary to be independent adults and develop the confidence to push their own boundaries.

“The objective is to help each child have a breakthrough,” says Karel Horney, director and founder of the camp. “We want them to be able to be successful, to have a great sleep-away experience. For many of them, being away at camp is being away from home for the very first time, so it’s incredibly gratifying to see them be successful.”

Most special needs summer camps employ counselors and staff members who have experience working with special needs children. Counselors and staff help the children become more independent by asking them to do things for themselves, like tie their own shoes and carry their own bags.

The Colorado Center for the Blind offers day camps and overnight camps for people who are visually impaired from elementary to college age. All of their programs are geared toward showing participants that they have the ability to be independent.

“Last year, one of our students was saying that his older brother was in a photography class, and it was just one more thing that he would never get to do,” says Brent Batron, youth services coordinator at the Colorado Center for the Blind. “Well, then we held a photography class for our students, and gave him that opportunity. It’s those types of victories — they’re small but they’re huge.

Now this kid believes that he can do anything in the world.”

Both parents and children often surrender to the idea that children with disabilities, such as blindness or Down syndrome, are incapable of doing things on their own, Batron says. Sending the child to summer camp can help instill confidence in both parties.

“As a parent, sometimes, it’s really when we’re in a hurry and trying to get out the door that I just rush to his rescue and do everything for him, but we’re not helping him at all by doing that,” Harmon says. “At Adam’s Camp, I see that really having the expectation for him to do things on his own is huge. A lot of people who have kids with special needs do that, I think, and you do have to be more helpful and watchful with them. But these times at camp let me be so much more confident with letting him go a little bit.”

Special needs camps also offer children with disabilities the chance to get out into the world and explore new activities.

“We want them to have the best time possible,” says James Pierie, director of the Colorado Lions Camp, where children go swimming, hiking, fishing and rock climbing, along with starring in talent shows and playing games on carnival nights. “The kids here do most anything that anyone else at summer camp would do, except we just run at a little slower pace.”

This summer, Will Harmon will go into the “trailblazer” program at Adam’s Camp, which features more challenging activities and a night spent camping in tepees.

“Will is 10 now and he wants to be more independent,” Harmon says. “It’s exciting and scary for me. But as we go into these next stages at camp, I know he will just love every second of it and he’ll just continue to grow.”

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