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A chance to shine

Are specialty camps the best option for your child with special needs?

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 her close.”

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 positive experience.

Tailor made for each camper

There's a host of benefits children derive from attending camp, but for kids with special needs, those benefits are amplified.

Michael 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 toilet-training.”

Camp 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.

"Traditional 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."

According to Heidi Haldeen, summer program specialist for Easter Seals, the opportunities and outcomes for all campers are the same.

“The only 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

That's 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.

But because none of the other children she played with were disabled, the competition wasn't always equal.

"Attending 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."

One of 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.

"It's like a camaraderie. It gives them the confidence they need to try new things they might not have otherwise tried."

Helping other campers with greater needs can be really beneficial for some campers, says Bednarz.

“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.”

Last year 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.

"When 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."


Building friendships

Developing 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 model here.”

"One 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

When camp 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.”

Break for families

Many campers 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 Huntington."

And the benefits are not only for the campers, but to the families themselves, says Bednarz.

“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.