Just as a specialty camp exists for just about any type of kid, kids with special needs can attend just about any camp.
In Chicago and the surrounding area, countless camps accommodate kids with special needs. Many more specifically cater to children with physical and mental disabilities.
"We offer inclusion in our traditional day camps, so a child who doesn’t live in a neighborhood that offers a special camp is always invited to join the neighborhood camp," says Gerry Henegan, special recreation manager with the Chicago Park District.
If a child wants to attend a six-week day camp session offered at several dozen city park locations, parents would meet with a park district therapeutic recreational specialist to determine the level of assistance needed and whether an inclusion aid would be required and available for the child.
"The best thing is communication and talking to the park district as much as possible because the more informed we are about special needs or behavioral issues, the more able we are to ensure the child has the best experience possible," Henegan says.
The park district also operates a handful of modified, one-week camps for children with cognitive disabilities, those who are blind, deaf or hard of hearing, and—for the first time this summer—in wheelchairs.
"These special service programs not only add to the recreation and leisure that the participants deserve, but it builds a lot of self-esteem and expands the social activities that children with special needs are often limited to," Henegan says.
By adapting activities, for instance using balls and bases that beep, blind children can enjoy the largely visual sport of baseball. And counselors might lead a nature hike down a more sensory stimulating trail to maximize an experience that might otherwise bore kids with cognitive disabilities.
While daytime programs are more than enough camp for some kids, they can serve as a springboard to more intense camp experiences.
Children ages 8 to 12 can participate in a one- or two-week overnight experience at Touch of Nature Environmental Center’s Camp Little Giant, located about 5½ hours south of Chicago near Carbondale.
Since 1952, Camp Little Giant has catered to adults and children with visual and hearing impairments, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
"What we take pride in is being able to offer a camp that’s no different from any other," says Vicki Lang-Mendenhall, program coordinator for therapeutic recreation and a certified therapeutic recreation specialist. "The camp is totally wheelchair accessible from the parking lot to the pontoon boat and everything in between. We also have a 24-hour nursing staff so we can accommodate folks with pretty high personal care needs as well."
Because the counselor to camper ratio is about one-to-three, with one-on-one assistance provided if needed, the ability for campers to participate in camp activities is virtually unlimited.
"It’s a chance for the kids and adults to actually be away from home and be with their peers and experience things they normally don’t get do to," Lang-Mendenhall says. "It’s the opportunity to go fishing and actually hold the rod and reel on the lake, the chance to get dirty, see bugs, hear the whippoorwills at night, sit around a campfire and sing songs—just those typical activities that one does when they go camping and share a cabin with somebody like them."
Although the campers might be experiencing things for the first time at camp, the fact that they are experiencing them with children like themselves diminishes self-consciousness, says Michel McGrory, program coordinator at Timber Pointe Outdoor Center, an affiliate of Easter Seals, which hosts week-long camps for specific groups of campers.
"... it’s the way they feel here, they don’t feel different," McGrory says. "They don’t feel like the odd one out. That’s not to say every camper feels that way, but if they do at home, they don’t feel that way when they get here. Here they have a sense of belonging because they are the focus of attention."
Located about 2½ hours from Chicago near Bloomington, Timber Pointe Outdoor Center offers children with muscular dystrophy, epilepsy, spina bifida, HIV and AIDs, cancer, sickle cell disease, Down syndrome and several other groups, activities that mirror those available at traditional overnight camps.
In addition to target sports, a fully accessible swimming pool, horseback riding, games, crafts and the like, Timber Pointe’s campus contains a high ropes course that children, even though physically disabled, can enjoy thanks to a secure strapped-in seat, McGrory says.
And children learn much more than how to ride a horse or shoot an arrow during these unique programs.
"I feel like for kids to grow, they have to have time away from their families and coming to camp gives them a little independence and freedom but still with supervision of trained counselors," McGrory adds. "It’s great for parents to see that even though they are in a wheelchair, they can succeed and have a good time."