Specialty camps like Camp Huntington in High Falls offer campers with special needs one-on-one access to highly trained and specialized staff, while promoting fun and independence.
At age 6, Kim Kelly paid
her first visit to a residential camp for children with special needs. It was
an experience she and her family will never forget. Up to this point, she had
lived a pretty sheltered life, her mother Ruth says.
"Because she has a
hearing loss and an orthopedic problem, it was natural for me to want to hold
By bringing Kim to camp,
her mother realized two things: "My daughter needed to learn to do things
on her own, and I needed to let go a little."
For the Kellys, it was a
Tailor made for each camper
host of benefits children derive from attending camp, but for kids with special
needs, those benefits are amplified.
Bednarz, executive director of Camp Huntington, in High Falls, says one benefit
is the camp’s highly focused staff.
“We design our camp cabins around a specific
profile, so we have campers with similar needs in each cabin,” he says. “This
way the staff can be very focused on specific goals. We might have
high-functioning campers in one cabin focusing on socialization, while in
another cabin, we have low-functioning campers who are focusing on
Huntington is a co-ed residential program for children and young adults with
special learning and developmental needs. The staff operates at a minimum of a 1:3
ratio with campers, as opposed to the 1:8 ration that is typical at inclusion
camps do a great job mainstreaming special needs' children into their programs,
but a special needs camp lets them be with other kids who have similar
disabilities,” says Sandy Cameron, editor of the Camping Magazine. “The programs are
pretty much the same, but may be altered to meet the children's needs."
to Heidi Haldeen, summer program specialist for Easter Seals, the opportunities
and outcomes for all campers are the same.
difference is the activities are modified according to the campers' needs. This
gives them a chance to shine."
Read more: Hudson Valley Parent's Camp Guide
Even ground, greater pride
what 9-year-old Tiffany Wells found when she attended a special needs camp.
During the school year, Tiffany, who has cerebral palsy and asthma, played on
the children's softball team, and a community bowling league.
because none of the other children she played with were disabled, the competition
wasn't always equal.
a special needs camp allowed Tiffany to compete on more even ground because all
the other kids were playing with some kind of disability," reports her
mother, Linda. The result? "Tiffany saw that she could actually win and
come out on top."
the beauties of a special needs camp is that the kids can learn and experience
new things with others who have similar disabilities, says Cameron.
like a camaraderie. It gives them the confidence they need to try new things
they might not have otherwise tried."
other campers with greater needs can be really beneficial for some campers,
“Our higher functioning
campers will assist the staff and get a chance to help others for the first
time,” he says. “That’s a huge pride point for them.”
when Tiffany went to camp, there was a girl in her cabin with a more severe
case of cerebral palsy than Tiffany had. Because Tiffany had spent her whole
life with people helping her, she naturally wanted a chance to help others.
we went to the dance, I got to push my new friend around in her chair,"
says Tiffany. "I also got to help her eat."
new skills isn't the only thing kids glean at a special needs camp. They learn
about friendships, too.
“Our campers greatly
benefit from the same socialization one would receive at any summer camp,” says
Bednarz. “You’ve got to figure out how to live with other people, compromise,
communicate your needs, get along with others. We have a very high acceptance
of the best things to be said about camp — any camp — is the opportunity for
the children to make friends. And for children with special needs, it's
especially important. They find out they are not alone, that there are others
with similar disabilities," says Cameron.
Break from routine
is over, what do the children take with them? For some, new skills. For others,
new friends. And for many more, simply a fond memory of having had a break from
their normal routine.
“The camp provides a break from what is
often a very structured school setting or residential setting,” says Bednarz.
“They have more freedom in our environment, and the chance to transfer their
abilities to new settings.”
look forward to returning year after year, says Bednarz. "We have more
than a 70 percent return rate, which tells us we’re doing something right and
families aren’t going elsewhere from year to year — they’re coming back to
benefits are not only for the campers, but to the families themselves, says
“We’ve had multiple
families who have said to us that they hadn’t been willing to trust someone to
take care of their child before,” he says. “After a season with us, they feel
like for the first time in years they can finally go away on a vacation and
trust us with their child.”
Denise Yearian is the former
editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.
All photos provided by Camp Huntington.