Gearing up for Camp: A Primer for Parents of Children with Disabilities

by Margarita Solis, MSSA

There are hundreds of residential programs within the United States that provide opportunities for children of all ability levels to participate in a scope of outdoor and creative recreational, camp, and adventure activities. Choosing the best camp for your child to attend should be a serious endeavor and choosing a camp for a child with a disability should not be any different if the perspective is choosing the camp that will offer the greatest opportunities and will keep your child safe. This is not always an easy task, however there are many resources to support you in this process.

The following illustrations are a culmination of real experiences and real examples. It illustrates the parent perspective, the process and experiences of a parent sending a child to camp.

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Opening day of camp — the drive!

Female camper who uses a wheelchair approaching an activity table.The two-hour drive to camp is filled with a wonderment of the opportunities that will be experienced by my child at her first day of a residential camp experience. All emotions are experienced in those two hours. Guilt in leaving my child for two weeks; anxiety about the staff that will care for my child while I am away … will they really take care of my child as I do? What happens if something happens to her wheelchair? Will they call me? What if she catches a cold, will I be contacted? The parent duality of emotions is starting to kick in strongly, that is, wanting to let go to support growth and normal experiences for my child and wanting to turn around and bring her back home. I hope that I completed the extensive camp application correctly as this will give the camp staff a well-rounded perspective but limited knowledge (parent duality) on who my child is. More than 100 miles later and what seems to have been one thousand thoughts later we arrive …

Have you got that Spirit … yeah man! That camp Spirit … yeah man … are words sung to a melody as we approach the camp welcome shelter. The parking lot is filled with accessible vans similar to ours. Staff neatly dressed in their cool blue camp t-shirts come to greet us and to help us navigate through opening day.

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The Cabin Experience

Two male campers leaning into each other.Suitcases are being unpacked and a bunk has been selected. Cabins are accessible, clean and spacey for my daughter’s new electric wheelchair. Bathrooms are supported with assistive devices as the counselors give us and the other families a grand tour. As I look back at my daughter, she has already made connections with her cabin mate. A feeling of great relief runs through me. I take some time to sit down with the counselors to go over the 10-page application with the 5 additional pages I added. We discussed unique ways to support my daughter both in describing her beautiful personality to demonstrating the best ways to support her physically, that is, how to transfer, charge her wheelchair, and ways to support her throughout her stay. I am impressed with the knowledge of the counselors. They seem to ask very solid questions based on my written notes on the application. I remember their names and asked them to ensure that my daughter sends a letter or two (or three or four) home while she is here. They assure me they will. We are unpacked … time for the health center visit. As I leave the cabin I notice there are five staff and eight campers in a cabin almost a 1:2 ratio … good!

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The Health Center

This is the heart of information. We sit down with one of the camp’s nurses to explain the medications, health histories, emergency numbers, allergies, and any and all information about the health of my child. The nurse explains that the nursing staff at camp comes to the child versus the child coming to the health center for their medications. Medications are given during meal times in the dining hall, cabins, or at the evening activity. The goal is to keep the child in the camp experience without interruption from medical intervention. So the nurses are traveling nurses at camp and seek to decentralize their process versus centralize all activity in the health center. We complete a basic health screen (temperature, blood pressure, skin checks, etc) and the nurse documents all this information. I take some time to review and also sign the document. The nurse describes that all medications are kept in the health center under lock and key and only the medical staff have access to the cabinets. Their medical resource is a children’s hospital 25 miles away but for emergencies there are medical facilities 8 miles away. The medical advisor is always a phone call away (on-call support from a physician medical director). As I wait until the nurse returns with copies of the documentation, I see children with all types of assisted devices, children with ventilators, G-Tubes, walkers, scooters, manual chairs, and electric chairs. Parents and children experiencing similar emotions and feelings as I am. The nurse returns with our information … it is time to say goodbye.

We return to the cabin and I give my daughter some last minute parental overload advice. We hug and I find myself hugging the counselors who I just met. They are the full guardians of my child for two weeks … the parent duality is starting to kick in … we have a two-hour drive home!

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Two days later…

A letter comes from camp:

Hi, Mom!

Female camper and staff laughing with other campers in the background.Today it is raining and so we are in the cabin writing letters, coloring, and making friendship bracelets. I am giving mine to my counselor Sarah because she is really nice. I went swimming today in the pool, they put me in an inner tube and played relay games in the pool. Sarah helped me get in the pool and stayed with me the whole time. We also went horseback riding. Mom, I want to do this when I get home … the horses are so cool! We got to brush the horses, take care of them, and then we got to ride them. My horse was named Casper. I was scared at first but Sarah helped me get on. The food here is good mom but they don’t let us have candy in the cabins, but we are having a cabin slumber party tonight and I hear there will be birthday cake for Mary. Her bunk is next to mine. Mary and I shared the bow we used for bow and arrows (archery). I think Mary likes Joe who is in Beech cabin

Tomorrow we are going on a campout where we will be going through the trails, putting up a tent, cooking our own food, and cooking s’mores!! I can’t wait! I also signed up to climb a tree Mom! I never climbed a tree before Mom … I hope we don’t get rained out!

Well, Mom, I have to go … the sun is coming up and we are going to the beach for a canoe ride. Sarah wants me to get ready. Tell Daddy I said hi, and Muffy, too.

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Two weeks later…

A male who uses a wheelchair and a female standing beside him.The two hour drive was filled with excitement to see my daughter again … the drive into camp this time around was more familiar and a sense of a home feeling overcame me. As we get out of our van, the counselors are dressed in their blue cool t-shirts still singing with the same energy they had on opening day … have you got that spirit … yeah man!

We enter the cabin, and my daughter and I embrace. She is fully packed and ready to go. She looks good with a little bit of a tan and a mosquito bite or two. She shows me all the arts and crafts she has made and gives me one she made especially for me. The counselors sit with us to evaluate the experience, and they give me a descriptive activity report listing all the activities she enjoyed during her two weeks. Also, reports on any incidents were also indicated. Sarah said she had a time or two of homesickness but that this is perfectly normal for the first time camper. Next year she will be a veteran.

We check out with the nurse at the welcome shelter to give us a health report and return the medications. We give one more hug to Sarah and we are on our way home.

The two-hour drive home was filled with two weeks of stories. I reflect on the parent duality complex and am comforted by the next step towards independence my daughter gained. I think I will research horseback programs we can do together.

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What to look for in camps

Searching for the best camp that meets the needs of your child is critical. Here is a checklist to follow:

  • Visit the camp and talk with the camp director to discover the philosophy of the camp especially if your child has a disability. What is their approach in including all children in activities?
  • Know the staff to camper ratio.
  • Learn about the ways staff are trained and the policies that guide their behavior. Understand the standards that the camp must follow. Many camps are endorsed and certified by the American Camping Association The ACA annually publishes a parents’ guide to accredited camps … a good place to start.
  • What activities are offered? How will your child be included in those activities? Assess the accessibility of facilities: What type of medical support is provided at camp?
  • What are the appropriate ways to communicate to staff to get progress reports on your child?

Margie Solis has more than 15 years experience working with children with disabilities in camp settings. She has served as Director of Camping and Assistant Director of Bradford Woods Outdoor Center.

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