Summer is almost here and if you’re a parent of a child of a certain age, you start hearing chatter about summer camps, day camps and all fun activities typical children enjoy. But what about your child who uses a wheelchair, or has difficulty speaking or eating? Is this in his or her future?
Definitely! There are camps in many states and across the nation that serve children with special needs. At least 32 camps specifically serve children with cerebral palsy, according to Needymeds.org, an organization that helps find affordable medications for those who can’t afford them.
But how do you choose the right camp? And, more importantly, how do you know whether your child is ready for a camp experience?
Summer camp can do wonders for a youngster’s self-confidence and social skills, not to mention new skills learned from camp activities. Sure, it can be hard letting go, especially if your child has a severe disability. But keep in mind that even though they miss you, they’re probably going to have a ball!
Choosing a Camp
The American Camp Association provides a wealth of information about types of camps and helpful tips for choosing one. Best of all, it offers a searchable database of U.S. camps. Just plug in your requirements, such as camps that serve children with mental or physical disabilities, and appropriate camp choices appear. You can even plug in cost parameters.
Another option is to call local chapters of major disability organizations about camps in your area. Many organizations publish lists of camps and can connect you with camp directors and former campers.
Paying for a Camp
Of course, part of your research will involve figuring out what you can afford. The cost of camps varies widely, with some high-end special-needs camps costing thousands of dollars for multiple-week sessions.
You can help fund your child’s camp experience by applying for scholarships. Experts say to do so from December through March, because the money is gone by April or May. If you have missed the boat this year, you can start thinking of next year. The early bird gets the worm in terms of scholarship funding.
Still other sources of funding include charitable organizations and fraternal organizations such as the Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary Clubs, all of which sponsor special-needs camps. And depending on your child’s specific special need, he or she may be eligible for financial aid from your state. Other sources of scholarships include religious or ethnic charities.
One thing to know: You usually first need to find a camp that can take your child — most of these organizations send the scholarship money to the camp in the child’s name, not to the parents directly.
Questions to Ask of a Specific Camp
After you’ve narrowed your choices, what do you do next? Handing over your child to complete strangers for a few days or longer requires lots of trust. Don’t be embarrassed to ask a lot of questions and repeat them until you understand the answers clearly. It is important that you feel as comfortable as possible about the camp and what it offers.
I would pay close attention to how camp staff responds to what you believe your child will need for a good camp experience. Do they listen? Do they treat your concerns with respect? Are they willing to work with you? Although camp staff has their own expertise and experience to offer, you know your child and what it takes to keep them safe and comfortable.
Moving on, according to a great article on camps and children with disabilities on Disaboom.com, basic information and questions to ask include:
- Cost Is it free (many are), is it on a sliding scale according to the parent’s income, or can the state help pay the camp’s fees? Look at all of your options. Special-needs camps try their best to make sure their camping experience is an option for any family, regardless of their income.
- Do they have a specific camping session tailored to cerebral palsy? Many camps have a wide variety of “specialized” weeks all summer, covering all the disability bases. It’s going to be a much better camping experience for your child if the session he or she attends has staff members well prepared to handle their specific disability.
- What age groups do they cluster together, and what session is your child eligible for according to his or her age? Most special-needs summer camps split up the sessions as follows: 6- to 13-year-olds, and then 14- to17-year-olds. The smaller the gap in ages clustered together, the more finely tuned your child’s camping xperience will be.
- What’s the on-site medical care and caregiver situation like? Most camps have dozens of caregivers and five or six (depending on how many campers are in each cabin) are then assigned to each cabin. Most of these caregivers are college students who are studying for some sort of medical degree and can be a lot of fun for the kids. And lastly, make sure they have either an RN or MD on-site 24/7. Many of the special-needs summer camps are miles away from hospitals or clinics.
- What about transportation? Many camps even go as far as providing round-trip accessible transportation for your child (the pick-up point usually being at a nearby disability rehab center). This service makes it easier on the parents, and also gives your child an additional opportunity to connect with the other kids attending camp.
Is Your Child Ready?
Every child matures at a different rate. This is no different for a special needs child. Pushing an unwilling child to go to camp is never a good idea. Ask yourself these questions to determine whether or not your child is ready for camp:
- Has he/she been away from you before and how has that gone? Day camps offer a good “training experience” for overnight camp.
- Can he/she be soothed or comforted by people other than family members?
- In what ways does my child need to be prepared for the camp experience, for example, sleeping in a different type of bed?
Last but not least, if you are feeling anxious about the whole camp thing, try not to communicate that to your child. Children are sponges when it comes to soaking up signs of stress from their parents, so stay calm and confident. Going away to camp – even if it’s just across town – could be the best thing that ever happened to your child.
The Cerebral Palsy Family Network provides more information about cerebral palsy and interaction among parents of children with cerebral palsy on its Facebook page.
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