Finding a camp for kids with special needs

SpecialNeedsCamp2WBy Allison Eatough

Finding and selecting a camp for a child with special needs can be an overwhelming experience, parents say. Many wonder if camps can meet their child's specific medical, physical, emotional or behavioral needs. And then there is the struggle of actually leaving a child with special needs for a day or even a week.

In the weeks before Makenzie Bailey started at Camp Airways, a day camp for children with asthma, questions began to fill her mother's head.

Darlene Bailey wondered: Would her 8-year-old be able to swim? Would she need to take breaks? Who would help if she had one of her coughing spells?

She received answers to all of her questions — and more — during orientation a week before camp at Baltimore Washington Medical Center, where she and Makenzie met the nurses and respiratory therapists who staff the camp in Severna Park. After that, Bailey felt certain that Makenzie, who was diagnosed with asthma at age 1, would be safe and secure at camp.

"They were great," the Glen Burnie resident says. "It made (Makenzie) feel real comfortable. ... They've got quality people there if anything were to happen."

"I was nervous for the first overnight camp," agrees Betsy Barron, a Columbia resident whose son, Jacob, has dyspraxia, a disorder that affects motor skill development and requires him to wear foot braces.

Barron wanted Jacob, then 12, to experience the benefits of camp, but like Bailey, she needed reassurance that staff members could keep her son safe. So before enrolling Jacob, she visited Camp Greentop, an overnight camp for children and adults with disabilities near Thurmont, Md., to see the grounds and meet staff members firsthand.

"My first time, I wanted to have eyes on," she says. "I spent three hours there, talking with staff, looking at the cabins, the showers, the paths."

She says she quickly "fell in love with the place." And so did Jacob. He has attended the camp for the past three summers and plans to go again this year.

Click Next below for steps to take and questions to ask when choosing a camp for kids with special needs.

SpecialNeedsCamp4WWhy and how to choose a special needs camp

A special needs camp benefits both the child attending the camp and the family, says Bill Morgan, vice president of camping and therapeutic recreation for the League for People with Disabilities, which runs Camp Greentop.

"It offers a safe way to facilitate separation from parents, a normal part of development, and an opportunity for the child to learn and grow away from the family," he says.

It also gives families a break from the stresses of caring for their child, he says, adding that the break often allows parents to be more supportive and nurturing when the child comes home.

While the initial worry and concern is normal, parents and special needs experts say there are ways to make the entire camp process less overwhelming and even enjoyable for those with special needs children. Read on for tips for finding the right special needs camp for your child.

Attend a camp fair or open house

Many counties and organizations hold camp fairs — including Chesapeake Family — where parents can learn about a variety of camps on one day and in one location. Camp staff members are on hand to explain daily activities and answer questions about their respective camps, such as if they have medical personnel on site to administer medication and first aid.

Some special needs camps host open houses, where parents and potential campers can explore the campgrounds and facilities, as well as meet staff members. Others, like Camp Greentop, offer weekend options in the spring, fall and winter where campers can try a shorter version of summer camp.

Pay attention to first impressions

When parents call or visit a camp for the first time, they should note how staff members respond, says Sandy Thomas, head of Camp Airways and director of respiratory care, pulmonary and the Sleep Center at Baltimore Washington Medical Center. Do staff members return initial phone calls in a timely, considerate manner? Do they show a genuine interest in the child and his or her interests and abilities? Do they ask about specific special needs? Do they refer to the child as more than just a camper? That interest and response level can set the tone for the entire camp experience, Thomas says.

Consider the cost and location

Special needs camps can be expensive. Many offer scholarships, financial aid and grants for families, says Amy Kelly, director of family and community services for Devereux Pennsylvania, a nonprofit behavioral health-care organization. Still, don't go beyond the family's means to pay for it.

"If the camp isn't affordable, adding the extra burden on your plate with the debt certainly won't make your stress any less," Kelly says.

Parents should also consider their child's safety risks when looking at camp locations, Barron says. For example, if a child has a history of running off and cannot swim, a camp near a major body of water without a fence surrounding it could be dangerous, she says.

Be open and honest about needs

Even if you think it might disqualify your child from a camp, be open and honest about his or her special needs, Morgan says. For example, some parents are hesitant to share that their child is not toilet-trained, fearing it could hurt the child's chances of enrollment. In most cases, special needs camps are prepared for this, Morgan says. Or, camps can add additional staff to accommodate needs, as long as they know before camp starts. "Having that knowledge will make things run a lot smoother," Morgan says. If a camp is not comfortable with a child's needs, it's probably not the right fit, he says.

Set up a communication plan

Before camp, parents should ask camp staff members how they prefer to communicate and how often, says Doria Fleisher, program director at Melwood Recreation Center and Camp Accomplish. For example, do they prefer phone calls, emails or in-person visits during camp sessions or when parents have questions?

Parents should also determine the right camp contact for their child. "If at all possible, try to work directly with one member of the staff to prevent miscommunication," Fleisher says. And remember that each camp has different communication guidelines. At Camp Greentop, camp staff members discourage parents from calling their children directly because it can result in homesickness, Morgan says.

Pack smart and label

The first time Jacob went to overnight camp, he returned with only half the clothes he took, no pillow and someone else's blanket. The next year, Barron put each outfit, including a T-shirt, shorts, socks and underwear, in a gallon-sized plastic bag. She also labeled the bags with his name and "Day 1," "Day 2," and so on so counselors would know what outfits went with what day. When the day is done, the entire outfit goes back in the bag.

Parents should also label the pillowcases, socks, pool shoes and even toothbrushes, Barron says. "You have to overthink it. ... Label everything," Barron says. "Your Sharpie gets a workout." And don't send top-of-the-line sheets and blankets, just in case you don't get them back, she says.

Remember the learning opportunity

All parents worry about leaving their kids overnight, whether they have special needs or not, Kelly says. It's important to remember that camps provide valuable learning opportunities, she says.
"Children learn increased independence, build self-confidence and often get more physical activity during summer camps and new activities," Kelly says. They also have more social opportunities and chances to make new friends, she says.

"It's generally a very healthy thing to do," Morgan says.

Photos courtesy of Melwood Recreation Center, which hosts Camp Accomplish and several other summer programs for children with disabilities.

What to Ask When Searching for a Special Needs Camp

To help parents narrow their special needs camp choices, Doria Fleisher, program director at Melwood Recreation Center and Camp Accomplish, recommends asking the following questions:

  • Can we set up a time when my child and I can come and tour your facility and meet with your staff?
  • What kind of recruitment, selection and training do you have for your staff?
  • What is a general counselor-to-camper ratio? Can that ratio be lowered if my child needs additional supports?
  • Have you served campers with special needs in the past? If so, could I speak to some of those campers' families?
  • Would you like to speak to my child's teacher, therapist or resource coordinator to get a more well-rounded view of my child?
  • Before the start of camp, can we discuss what supports you are able to put in place to support my child? Once camp starts, what kind of feedback or communication will the camp provide me with and how frequently?
  • Is there a specific staff member who will be focusing on promoting inclusion?

Find camps for kids with special needs here.