Lorra Rudman cupped her head in her hands.
Her son Ben was about to finish sixth grade, his toughest yet. This school year, Ben's ADHD put up more barriers than ever. He felt bullied, teased, laughed at, 'different.' He had no friends. No invitations. No play dates. Ben sat alone at lunch, spending recess inside with his teacher.
Most alarming for Rudman was that Ben insisted he was happier without friends. With summer break breezing quickly down the calendar, Rudman could foresee months of self-imposed social isolation.
"It was the first time I felt I may not successfully meet the challenge as my 12-year-old's mom, caretaker and advocate," Rudman says. "I'd always been able to keep myself a few steps ahead of what he needed and had been able to deliver."
The Rudmans looked at summer camp as a way to help Ben connect with other kids instead of retreating inside himself. But Ben didn't see it that way. He'd been to traditional camps before. This summer, he told his mother, he'd rather study with a tutor and "stay home with mom."
"I knew this would be a terrible choice," Rudman says.
Ben and other kids across Chicago are finding summer places where they can savor success instead of spending the long sunny days being yelled at because of their differences. (See camp listings, page 40, and also check with your special recreation district, listing on page 49.)
"Summer time is prime time to have a positive experience," says Francesca Skowronski, with the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Ben went to Camp STAR in Highland Park. There are other camps like this one, operated through the University of Illinois at Chicago and Jewish Council for Youth Services, but it is the first camp in the Midwest staffed with counselors and psychiatrists trained to work with kids who have problems paying attention, handling their emotions and socializing.
Camp STAR is a summer day program for people with special needs. It centers around a point system that rewards behaviors like helping someone else or speaking up in a group discussion. And its benefits don't blow away with the autumn leaves. Parents gather for weekly sessions to learn to keep up the rewards system at home all year long. Often, kids go home with a skill set that allows them to function with fewer pills.
"Medications don't really teach skills," says Mark Stein, director of the Hyperactivity, Attention and Learning Problems (HALP) Clinic at the University of Illinois.
Parents should start shopping around for a summer camp as soon as they can, Skowronski advises, because special needs programs commonly fill up as early as February. Research by visiting camps and talking to other families who have been there. It's important to know the day-to-day staff to student ratio, Skowronski says.
Parents can let kids tip them off to tell whether they're ready for overnight camp. If the camper has good experiences with sleepovers at family and friends' houses, the child might be ready for camp. In general, Skowronski advises, kids are developmentally ready to go to residential camps at about 8.
Overnight camps offer opportunities for independence and confidence in living away from home and present more options in structure, activities and location. But day camps allow kids to keep the home ties strong and generally cost less, she says.
Cost is a serious consideration. Camp STAR comes with a $6,000 tab for its seven-week day program. The camp offers financial assistance packages and Skowronski urges families to reach out to church groups and community service organizations to help out with grants.
"The main goal is for (Ben) to come away with a more solid sense of himself, higher self-esteem. And to have fun," Rudman says.
"So far, mission accomplished."
For more information, go online at www.jcys.org/campstar or call (312) 996-6923.