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Choose a special needs camp

Here's help with making a wise choice

Determine the experience you seek


Before choosing a day camp, a parent needs to decide what kind of services he wants in a camp. “When people are looking for a camp, are they looking at it from a purely recreational point of view–which is great and has its own therapeutic value–or do they want to see something that has more therapy built into the camp?” asked Nancy King, an occupational therapist who is founder and executive director of A Horse Connection, which runs an equine-based day camp with locations in Saugerties and Rhinebeck. A Horse Connection has a hippotherapy component specifically tailored to the needs of each individual child. This is a therapy treatment that uses the multidimensional movement of the horse. “They might not necessarily realize that they’re getting therapy,” King said. “The whole point is for them to have fun and at the same time get some benefits from it.”

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Staffing expertise and ratios


Regardless of whether the camp is geared towards the special needs community or is a mainstream camp, there is important information that parents need to know about the camp to make an informed decision.


The number one issue is staffing, both in experience and staff-to-camper ratios.

Parents should ask a camp director what experience they have with special needs children, and inquire into their educational background as well as any special training they may have. The same questions should be asked of other staff, both paid and volunteer.


For instance, Camp Sunrise’s, a camp in Warwick for a variety of special needs children, camp director is a retired special education teacher with 20 years experience running the camp, and is assisted by staff who are college students studying special education. It’s also important to know what training that staff receives.


The other issue is ratio. Many camps serving special needs children maintain a one to one or one to two staff to camper ratio. SullivanARC’s program has 20 openings for campers who need a one to two ratio and five openings for campers who need one-on-one assistance. The size of the group a child would be in is another factor affecting the experience.


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Make sure to ask about medical personnel on staff. Find out if there is a nurse on site or if it is CPR/First Aid-certified staff, suggests Mike Tenckinck, a camp director for the Warwick center. A parent’s comfort level will depend on their child’s individual needs. Become familiar with the safety precautions that are in place regarding the activities.


Knowing the activities of the day camp is another critical factor in deciding if the camp is right for a child. Determine if they are activities that your child is able to do and will enjoy. Colleen Borko of SullivanARC suggests that another gauge parents can use in determining if a camp is right for a child is what kinds of questions the camp asks about their children in particular.

“Besides reading through their Individual Educational Plan, we’ll ask, ‘What is your child like in the community?’ A camp or a good program should be asking those questions of the parents to get that feedback up front before they place them in groups,” Borko said. Wherever a child ends up, it offers something out of the norm. “Summer camps are a great place for kids,” Tenckinck said. “They can come and grow and learn a lot.”

Freelance writer Joanne McFadden lives in Saratoga County, New York.