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This is a guest post by Patti Sampson.
1. You will challenge yourself.
Working at a camp for people with disabilities is a chance to step out of your comfort zone and learn important new skills.
You learn to become comfortable with things that you never imagined you would do, from helping others with personal care, feeding people, lifting or using equipment to lift other human beings. You won’t just step outside of your comfort zone; you will be shocked and pleasantly surprised at how quickly your comfort zone grows.
Almost all new counselors I’ve seen have fear in their eyes and a nervous laugh as campers are arriving – we serve campers with some pretty complex needs, but by the time check in has ended and lunch is being served I can actually see a physical difference in those staff, they are so much more relaxed and confident.
In the matter of an hour or two!!
The reason counselors are able to relax is because once they meet their campers and get to spend some time with them, they quickly understand the difference between sympathy and empathy.
People with disabilities don’t want you to feel sorry for them; many of them have full and wonderful lives so we don’t need to feel sympathetic toward them, but once you get a chance to get to know them you realize that they’re just people, and you’re a person, and you’re not that different. Then you have an epiphany moment of realizing that, given different circumstances, it could be you needing someone to care for you. And THAT’S when you realize that you should treat this camper the exact way that you would want to be treated if you were them.
You realize that you would want to be treated with dignity, respect, kindness, and a little humor.
All of a sudden, it’s not so scary, you’re just one human being helping another human being eat their lunch.
2. You will gain transferable skills.
So the obvious place to start is by pointing out that, if you’re someone who plans on eventually working in healthcare, you should absolutely work at a camp for people with disabilities or special needs. We’ve had counselors who were studying pre-med, nursing, kinesiology, and occupational therapy, just to name a few. We’ve also had people who were studying recreational therapy, education, social work, and many other fields.
It really doesn’t matter what you’re planning on doing next, working with people who have disabilities will help you become a better communicator – you’ll learn to read body language and hand gestures of campers who are non-verbal, you’ll learn to be patient with campers who have difficulty verbalizing or who use assistive devices – more importantly you’ll want to be patient because you’ll really care about what they have to say.
My camp’s ACD (Assistant Camp Director) was once going through files and told me about a moment she experienced where she thought a camper’s parents had filled out the application incorrectly because they stated she was non-verbal and the ACD thought to herself, “That can’t be right, I talk to her every day!” after thinking about it for a moment, she realized that they communicated every day, but the camper had very limited speech and communicated very effectively through sounds and writing. You quickly learn that being a great communicator has little to do with verbal language.
It will also help you become a more creative problem solver, even though most camps for people with disabilities aim for a universal design in their programs, there will still be moments when you’ll have to adapt the way you teach something, or the way you and your camper participate in an activity in order to meet their needs. Being an efficient and creative problem solver can benefit you in any future endeavor.
Special needs camps can also open up a lot of doors for you; there is such a thriving community both on a local level and worldwide. The connections you make with your campers, their families, the camp staff, alumni, and community can help open up a lot of other opportunities.
3. It’s the safest, most inclusive space you’re likely to experience.
Camp is typically a pretty cozy, safe, inclusive place, but that environment is amplified at camps for people with disabilities and special needs (in my experience).
My first summer as a camp counselor, I was 18 and had never worked with individuals with disabilities before. I was totally one of the fear in the eyes, nervous laugh people I described above. The campers all arrived at once on a bus. They all started piling off and I had a moment of, “Oh geez, I’m not ready for this. What did I get myself into?” A group of ladies who had intellectual disabilities rushed over to me and asked, “Are you my counsellor?” I told them I didn’t know, asked their names, and nervously checked my camper list.
They said, “We’re just going to have the best week!!”, hugged me, grabbed my hand, and we had a little dance party while we made our way to the check in table. And just like that THEY made ME feel comfortable.
It’s also the best place to practice your public speaking skills, especially if you’re shy or nervous about it outside of camp. In my experience everyone is so accepting and encouraging, that shy people don’t feel as self-conscious as they normally would. And the applause!! We clap and cheer for everyone and everything. There’s a lot of kindness.
You will learn to appreciate and celebrate differences. Everyone talks about appreciating and celebrating differences, when you’re working with people who have disabilities or special needs you actually get to see and experience the beauty of uniqueness. And it just makes you feel so fortunate to be a part of the camp mosaic.
4. It will change your perspective about the world around you.
One of the things that always shifts when people begin to work at camp for people with disabilities is that they begin to notice that it’s not really someone’s disability that is an obstacle in their day-to-day life, it’s the world around them that’s the problem.
Most likely the camp you work at will be barrier free and there may still be some challenges for campers with physical disabilities, but once you go out into the “real world” you start to see just how inaccessible society really is. Ramps that are attached to a narrow door with a step on the other side, or the tissue holder being too far away from the toilet in a public bathroom are two examples of the types of things you’ll start to see everyday.
It’s actually pretty wonderful and amazing when you start to really see the world from someone else’s perspective. It sort of feels like the moment Neo takes the red pill in the Matrix, once you start to see the world from the perspective of someone with a disability you can’t unseen it. What you CAN do is help to educate others, help create change, and continue to be empathic.
5. It will create a different definition of what camp is.
You may have a certain definition of what summer camp means, based on your past experiences, what you’ve been told, or even what you’ve seen in movies. Working at a camp for people with disabilities will burst open any preconceived notions you might have.
Yes, it’s a place where campers come to make friends, try new things, and make some wonderful memories. But it’s also a place where children and youth can “just fit in”. They don’t have to worry about being stared at, pointed at, or treated differently, they just get to be themselves and let their personality and talent be the thing about them that stands out.
Camp is also one of the most important parts of the parents and caregivers lives too. It’s a week of respite, when parents can reconnect with each other, spend one-on-one time with their other children (which is often rare), get simple chores done, or just sleep in. Camp is more than a week of fun, for these families it can be a game changer.
There are many camps that cater to adults with disabilities as well, for them it’s a week of vacation. They may not be able to go to the beach or an amusement park with their family and friends but they can go to a camp that is barrier free and able to accommodate their needs.
I have a camper, who had been to camp years ago as a child, return as an adult, and while she was splashing around in the pool she said, “You know, I haven’t been swimming in 16 years, since the last time I was at camp” because she hadn’t had access to a barrier free pool in her community. Camp allows adults with disabilities to experience vacation in a way that many of us take for granted.
Camp is also a place where families from small communities can build connections and network with the broader disability community, just like the counselors have access to, and become part of that community – and it’s with the support and information of these networks that they build an enriching and fulfilling life for their family.
It’s pretty amazing to hear the stories, and see the impact that camp has on campers, their families, and the community at large – and it’s really cool to think about the role you get to play in that.
People with disabilities and other special needs deserve the best care available, so if you’re a kind person who loves to learn then you owe it to yourself and them to share your gifts.
And if the idea makes you nervous… well then that’s all the more reason to do it, isn’t it?
Patti is a former camp director of Camp Tidnish, Easter Seals Nova Scotia. She has worked in the camping industry for 20 years within various programs including camps for underprivileged youth, music and science camps, and camps for individuals with disabilities. You can reach Patti over at her blog thecampnerd.com or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.