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Special Needs Summer Camps

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MotherDaughterIt’s nearly that time again. As summer approaches, moms around the country may be shedding tears (or silently cheering) as they begin sewing nametags onto their kids’ underwear.

Packing your child off to summer camp is always a mixed bag of emotions; however, for parents of children with special needs, it can be much more of a challenge.

There are about 7 million kids in the country who receive special education for disabilities like autism, learning disabilities and Down Syndrome. While there is no overall statistic regarding the number of pediatric patients with medical conditions, we do know that there are more than 8,500 kids under the age of 15 that are diagnosed with cancer each year, and about 2.2 million children living with HIV worldwide.

Add in other conditions like chronic asthma, blood disorders, and attention deficit disorder, and you have a pretty sobering number of kids who might have a hard time in traditional summer camps.

No parent wants his child to miss out on the opportunity to explore the outdoors, travel to a different part of the country, and interact with other kids in an environment outside of school. Fortunately, there are now a number of overnight camps designed especially for children who have special needs, dealing with a variety of physical, medical, behavioral and mental challenges.

“We’ve heard very, very positive things about camps for children with special needs,” says Paula Goldberg, executive director of the PACER Center, a national resource center for professionals and parents of children with disabilities. “Often times, it’s the first time these kids are away from home.”

While a parent’s anxiety may never disappear altogether, these camps are generally staffed with trained counselors and medical experts who know how to deal with specific conditions. The staff should discuss your child’s particular needs, medications and treatment history in order to regulate what they will require during camp. And camp isn’t just good for the kids, but for weary and overworked parents as well, so there’s less reason to feel any guilt, especially if you know that he’s having the time of his life.

Parents are reporting success stories that extend beyond their child simply having a good time at summer camp. Leslie Meril, a mother from New Jersey, sent her then five year-old son Jesse to attend Camp Lee Mar in Pennsylvania. Jesse is multiply disabled with a moderate mental impairment cause by a traumatic brain injury before or at birth. Before he left for camp at the age of five, he was completely nonverbal.

Camp Lee Mar deals with children with various levels of developmental challenges, autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and learning disabilities by combining academic study with recreational activities. “The kids have classes five days a week so that they don’t regress,” explains Leslie. “By the time Jesse got home from camp after seven weeks, he could say short sentences.”

Now at 12 years old, “Jesse won’t shut up!” she laughs. In several years of camp, Leslie has noticed that her son makes the most progress during summer camp, praising the continuity of study, the individualized attention from counselors, and the support of his peers.

Sending a child with special needs away from home can clearly be a difficult task. Leslie recalls being nervous about her son’s health needs and feared that his medication schedule wouldn’t be handled properly. However, she learned that at this particular camp, all medications are prepackaged and cross-referenced with parents and doctors, so that every child gets the right dose at the right time.

As for her concerns over Jesse’s separation anxiety, those were put to rest after his first summer at camp. “At first I couldn’t tell if he liked it, because he couldn’t speak to us on the phone. But the structure helped him to find expressive language. We get to visit him once per summer, and he is so happy and well adjusted.” It’s also not an inexpensive option.

While some camps are free or offer financial assistance, Leslie had to appeal to the special needs school system to help defray the costs of $7,500 per summer. “It’s not an easy thing to accomplish, but it can be done.” For more information about Camp Lee Mar, call (215) 658-1708, or see Leemar.com. (Camp for the summer of 2007 is taking place on June 27 – August 14).

You can also find a list of special needs camps that are accredited by the American Camp Association at American Camp Association. When you’re researching camps for your special needs child, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Find out what the counselor-to-camper ratio is; ideally it should be about three to one. Learn about what kind of medical staff is available and how close the camp is to a hospital. Also, be aware that some camps are specialized toward specific needs, while others are more encompassing of different disabilities. We’ve compiled a list of camps around the country that cater to various needs:

For children who are affected by a life-threatening illness, summer camp can be a safe and supportive environment that allows them to get away from the normal routine:

Arizona Camp Sunrise is sponsored by the American Cancer Society for kids 8-16 who have, or have had cancer. The camp is free of charge, relying heavily on donations from individuals. It has a ratio of four counselors to every camper, but those who need more attention than others will receive it. A 24-hour medical staff is on hand for all campers. Activities include many of the traditional camp fun, like archery, arts and crafts and drama. Camp Sunrise takes place July 15-21 (2007). The camp also sponsors “Sidekicks” camp July 7-13, designed for children who have siblings with cancer, allowing them the opportunity to meet and support other siblings going through a similar situation. 602-952-7550; Arizona Camp Sunrise.

Those looking for day camps can check out Tucson Summer Fun Day Camp (Mon-Fri, May 29-June 15) and Phoenix Summer Fun Day Camp (Mon-Fri, June 4-22); these camps are three weeks long and are held for kids who have or had cancer, plus their siblings, ages 3-7.

SchoolkidsCamp Heartland offers four weeklong programs in Minnesota and one weeklong program in Southern California for children ages 7-15 living with, or affected by HIV/AIDS (youths 16-21 can participate in the fall Youth Retreat programs). The fee is $50 per child [or a $100 maximum fee per multiple children], but can be waived for those in financial need. Besides traditional camp activities, the campers can sign up for discussion groups to talk to their peers, as well as professional nurses, social workers and psychologists about their condition. A physician is always available on site or at a nearby clinic, and there are usually about five-six medical volunteers as well. Each nurse is assigned to one or two cabin groups to dispense medications and monitor each camper’s health. 800-724-4673; Camp Heartland.

For kids with behavioral problems or learning disabilities, traditional camp often doesn’t provide them with the patient, individualized attention that they may need.

Camp Kodiak in Ontario, Canada is for children ages 6-18 who have learning disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). There is an hour of academic tutoring each day, and the rest of the day is spent building social skills through outdoor sports, along with a more focused approach through activities like drama and music. The ratio of campers to counselors is two to one, so that each child can get the attention they need. There are three to seven-week programs available, with fees between $2,875-$6175. 877-569-7595; Camp Kodiak.

The Learning Camp in Vail, Colorado also deals with kids ages 7-14 with learning disabilities, ADD and ADHD. The student to counselor ratio is three to one. The program combines academics that are tailored to each child, with traditional outdoor camp activities. Classes are held outdoors and there is no homework, but lessons do last several hours each day. Two-week sessions are available throughout the summer, and cost $2,900. (970) 524-2706; Learning Camp.

Talisman Camps in North Carolina deals with children 8-17 with learning disabilities and ADD, as well as those with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. The camper to staff ratio is about two to one, and there are several programs available for different conditions and age groups. Programs for children with Asperger’s Syndrome or high-functioning autism focus on activities like rope-climbing courses to build social skills and emotional management. The ADD and learning disabled program may include a mix of academics and outdoor activities, as well as pioneering adventures. Two-week programs take place throughout the summer, and cost $1,400-$2,900. 1-888-458-8226; Talisman Camps.

Many special needs camps are more generalized, bringing together campers with a variety of physical, behavioral and medical conditions like Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, ADHD, cancer and diabetes.

Albrecht Acres of the Midwest in Iowa is a summer camp for both children and adults with different conditions. There is 24-hour nursing service, and a three-to-one camper to counselor ratio (one-to-one when needed). The price is $425 per week and $170 per weekend, but there is financial aid available. 563-552-1771; Albrecht Acres. The camp fee for a week-long (Sunday through Friday) program is $440; for a weekend stay (Fri. – Sun.), the fee is $170; camp season starts June 17 and runs through August 10.

Camp Aldersgate, located on 120 acres in Arkansas, has three types of short-term programs available throughout the year. Their medical camps serve children with all sorts of disabilities, and work with the organization Med Camps of Arkansas to provide volunteer physicians on site. Respite Care takes place several weekends throughout the year in order to give parents and caretakers a temporary break. Kota Camps are weekend or weeklong programs designed for campers with disabilities along with their siblings and friends, to promote special needs awareness and understanding. 501-225-1444; Camp Aldersgate. (Summer camp this year runs from June 10 – August 10, for children ages 6-18).

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