Secrets For Success

By Beth Lecroy

All kids need a little camp in their lives! The fellowship and joy of the camp experiencemust be made available to as many children as possible. Currently, too many children spend too much time looking at TV or other screens, and not enough time with others.

Camp involves playing outside in the fresh air and learning to get along with other children. The experience may include swimming, making crafts from items one might never have thought of using, and singing hokey songs. It’s inside jokes, kickball, and lost pink swim goggles. It’s about skits, counselors/role models, and activities that kids would never do at home.

Now imagine missing these experiences—never making a tie-dyed T-shirt, sitting in front of a campfire, playing Spud, or participating in a talent show. Imagine not receiving a camp nickname or meeting a favorite counselor. Envision a summer of kids staying home every day because people thought it might be too difficult to work with those with special needs.

When including children with special needs in a camp program, consider these important items for success:

  • Collaborating with others
  • Developing a training curriculum
  • Serving as a resource
  • Hiring staff
  • Communicating with families.

Collaborating With Others
Collaboration between a camp and the local school district is a great place to start. The YMCA of Arlington in Texas began a partnership with the Arlington Independent School District six years ago. Jacque Cummings, an in-home special-education instructor, came into my office and said she wanted us to work together to make sure that students with special needs could continue to improve upon their social skills during the summer.

Over time, this partnership flourished. Currently, once summer school ends in June, about 45 to 50 children attend the summer camps Monday through Thursday during the month of July. Some of the children’s time is spent with special-education instructors, but the rest of the day is spent enjoying camp activities.

Developing A Training Curriculum
Having a good relationship with the local school district will also come in handy when considering training. Invite school personnel to camp to share their knowledge of special needs with staff members, such as information about modifications and adaptations. Some children who struggle can achieve success with small adaptations, but staff members must be taught how to accommodate these variations. For example, sharing stories with children teaches them about social situations. School personnel may also help some children better understand a situation or expectations that will lead to more appropriate responses. Teachers who work with special-needs children have the expertise to assist others in acquiring these skills.

Serving As A Resource
Although a specific child may not attend your camp, it’s important to be aware of the camps in the area so you can be a good resource for families. Some great camps and programs, like Easter Seals, Miracle League, and MDA summer camps, specifically cater to children and adults with special needs. There are camps for burn victims, cardiac patients, and deaf children. Being familiar with nearby organizations can make you a valuable partner in locating the appropriate resources for families.

Sharing information and experiences with other camp directors and staff members also can be beneficial. This type of collaboration can not only improve the current program, but also may give you additional ideas for future activities.

Hiring Staff
Hiring caring and empathetic staff is the most important task you can do to better serve children with special needs. While it may be easy to train people in skills such as archery, training people to think of others can be difficult, for some people have preconceived notions about children with special needs. During the hiring process, be sure to include situational questions (e.g., How would you deal with a camper who refuses to participate in an activity?). Applicants’ responses will help determine if he or she is the right fit for the camp.

Communicating With Families
Taking the time to meet with families one-on-one to discuss what works best with their child can be extremely helpful. Not only will these meetings provide insight into the child’s needs, they also help to identify the parents’ concerns and expectations. Try to schedule these meetings in a private, neutral area so everyone can talk frankly. Encourage parents to include their child. This provides an opportunity to see how the child interacts with others, and gives you an opportunity to introduce yourself. Try to supply an activity for the child while you and the parents talk.

Serving Others
One of the most important reasons for finding ways to integrate children with special needs into camp is the added bonus it has for staff members, as well as for other campers. In learning to be more accepting of the differences among people, everyone becomes more understanding of the needs of people with disabilities. I witnessed this portrayal of patience and dedication firsthand as the staff and campers encouraged an extremely reluctant swimmer with Down’s syndrome to get into the pool on a hot Texas day. In his first camp experience the fear in his eyes was apparent. His apprehension continued for the first week, but there was a gradual improvement. As summer drew to a close, the boy who had stood frozen with fear in his life vest and goggles was transformed into one of the most popular children at camp. And he swims like a fish now! When people have trouble understanding the power of summer camp, I reflect on a moment like this.

The local YMCA has an activity called the Rag program. It is in honor of a young disabled boy who wasn’t the strongest or the fastest but he had heart. As a proud “Ragger,” I think about the creed and its meaning of serving all of God’s children the best way that I can:

Ragger’s Creed
I would be true, for there are those who trust me;
I would be pure, for there are those who care;
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer,
I would be brave, for there is much to dare.
I would be friend to all—the foe, the friendless;
I would be giving, and forget the gift;
I would be humble, for I know my weakness;
I would look up, and laugh, and love and lift.

Beth Lecroy is the Executive Director for the YMCA of Arlington for the Central Branch in Texas. Reach her at imadalfn2@gmail.com .

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What Is The Rag Program?
The YMCA Rag/Leather program provides campers and staff the opportunity to accept challenges for personal growth. The terms “rag” and “leather” refer to items worn around the neck at camp as outward signs of these inward challenges. Acceptance of a rag or leather challenge involves personal introspection guided by an adult camp counselor. The YMCA Raggers Program is one of the unique components of Y Camp that keeps campers and staff returning year after year. It will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2014.
Source: The YMCA of Greater Whittier, Angelus Oak, Calif.