St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano understands the benefits of inclusion programs for both typical and special needs students.
Local camps help children of all abilities and interests come together, learn from one another and thrive
Whether filled with art, sports, science or even filmmaking, camps remain a quintessential part of summer and of childhood. Orange County kids have some of the most innovative programs to choose from, tailored specifically to their interests and hobbies. But something even more special than hands-on education and immense fun is happening at a number of camps around the county. Local children are learning real-life lessons in compassion and empowerment that will stay with them for the rest of their lives as they play and learn alongside children with physical and mental challenges.
“Kids develop a sense of understanding for those who are different and relate to them in ways they haven’t before at Camp James,” said Scottie Roach, director of the nearly 30-year-old summer camp held at Newport Dunes in Newport Beach that welcomes campers of all ages and abilities. Not only do campers ages 4 to 13 explore everything from kayaking to dance and from rock climbing to go carting, they do so alongside children with diverse backgrounds and ability levels.
Camp James staff members are equipped with extra training in order to understand and best serve children with special needs. Staff consults with parents on the needs, desires and goals of their child before they begin the camp, and even work to connect them to a program that is a good match if Camp James isn’t. The camp also offers a “shadow” program at no cost to parents which pairs “teen volunteers with a good heart and training” with children who may benefit from a helpful and caring buddy.
But children with special needs enjoy everything Camp James has to offer just as a typically functioning child would.
On the volleyball court at Camp James, you might find a child with special needs paired with a typically functioning child to flip the ball over the net using a towel rather than serving the ball in the traditional form. Or in preparation for a musical performance, a group of children might use hand motions instead of singing to express themselves when one child is sensitive to loud noises. These are just a few of many anecdotes that display Camp James’ commitment to fostering a positive environment for all.
And the benefit of this approach is shared by all. While typically developing children develop compassion and understanding, children with special needs are empowered to overcome challenges.
“It’s amazing how the right coaching can help a child who may have ADHD and trouble focusing, for example, hit a target with a bow and arrow,” said Roach. “Once that goal is achieved, the child can translate that experience to more focus in other areas of life.”
According to Yvette Salcedo, community-based program manager for United Cerebral Palsy of Orange County, an organization that caters to all types of special needs children and works to include them in daily activities, exposing special needs children to non special need based environments is very important for their development. “Depending on the level of severity, the child with special needs has, they spend their school day in a special class. They’re not around typically developing kids and they’re not afforded the opportunity to engage with others. That’s why it’s really crucial for them to be exposed to a typical environment,” she explains. Salcedo continued by explaining, “It’s difficult enough for a child with special needs to live a typical life, kids with special needs don’t get to enjoy all the benefits of typically developing kids. Even in our subtle ways of allowing a child a special needs to attend a typically developing setting, we’re allowing them to have the same opportunity.”
Some typically developing kids may be weary of spending time with special needs children at first and Salcedo believes that it is because it is a fear of the unknown.“For people or kids who are not educated about kids with special needs, it can be very scary at times. They could be put off to interact or engage with kids with special needs because they don’t quite understand why that child is not talking or why that child is in a wheel chair,” she said. She also explained that it’s important to expose children who do not have special needs to children who do to teach them that these differences are nothing to be afraid of but instead is something to learn from. “So it’s important to teach and create a culture of inclusion. To teach them that regardless of their abilities, at the core of who they are, they are still kids.”
St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano is also bringing children with disabilities together with caring young counselors for an unforgettable summer experience. The school’s Special Camp for Special Kids is designed specifically for children with special needs and offers a one-to-one camper to counselor ratio. “Activities including trips to Knott’s Berry Farm, the San Diego Zoo, the Long Beach Aquarium, local beaches and bowling lanes provide a traditional summer camp experience while enhancing campers’ social development and emotional well-being,” said director Lindsay Eres.
“But campers aren’t the only ones who blossom through the magic of the camper-counselor relationship,” she said. “Counselors are given the rare chance to work in a positive, nurturing environment while exploring the intricacies and needs of the disabled community.” The overarching goal is to eliminate the stigma commonly associated with disabilities — another lasting lesson that will enrich and empower all involved for the rest of their youth and into adulthood.
Traditional summer camps are not the only ones providing mutual benefit to children of all abilities and interests. Technology camps like iD Tech Camp, held at UC Irvine, give kids the chance to take their hobbies and make something much more out of them while working collaboratively with peers and tech-savvy undergraduate, graduate and professional instructors.
“Children with Asperger’s syndrome and autism excel in the camp because the program is very focused, hones their skill and really allows them to blossom just as other children in the program do,” said Karen Thurm Safran, vice president of marketing and business development for iD Tech Camps.
Imaginations are given the chance to run wild at the weeklong overnight camp — kids can attend for as many weeks as they like, of course — and materialize in video games, iPhone apps, websites and films that campers can add to their portfolio of work, even at the young ages of 7 to 17.
“Including children with special needs in our program shows them that a huge melting pot of kids with similar interests and love for technology exists,” said Safran.
While the thrills of a new adventure each day are enough to make any child fall in love with summer camp, the lifelong values that local camps instill in them through acceptance and inclusion will last a lifetime. Beyond identifying passions for sports or performing arts or technology, these camps are revealing to young people their passions for helping one another.
“Interacting with people different from them opens children’s eyes to what challenges exist out there for their peers,” said Roach. “This realization will not only help them successfully and compassionately navigate their young lives, it will also help them become better parents.”
By Andrea Landis