Looking for Summer Camps for Special Needs? Consider Camp O

The joy of summer camp is a birthright for every child. Among summer camps for special needs, Camp O shines. Find out why.

Camp for kids with social-emotional challenges can often feel more like therapy — instead of the joyful experience summer camp is meant to be. Ellie Badesch, Director of Summer Programs at The Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School (O-School), firmly believes that a fun filled summer camp should be available to all children. That’s why, in 2022, she co-led a team to launch Camp O, a unique summer camp for kids ages 6-15 who need extra support.

“We had an extremely successful first summer with 15 campers and four counselors,” Badesch says. “We learned a lot, we built a supportive community, and, above all, we had tons of fun.”

Camp O combines the knowledge and expertise from the world-renowned O-School in Chicago with an immersive summer camp experience, allowing kids to build memories, make friends, and learn social-emotional concepts that will give them the skills to build and maintain relationships with peers, teachers, family, and even future employers and coworkers.

Learning and practicing in a fun setting

The main structure at Camp O is straightforward. Each day of the two-week camp, campers, counselors and directors engage in a “Morning Meet Up” where they learn about the day’s theme — which always features a new social-emotional concept that kids learn and practice throughout the day.

“This concept might be flexible thinking, ‘me versus we’ thinking, sportsmanship, impression-making, among others,” Badesch explains.

As campers engage in all the fun activities of summer camp — kickball, arts and crafts, capture the flag, chess, dance parties, waterslides and so much more — they also learn practical applications of the day’s social-emotional concept.

“Some of our campers had never been in a setting that focused on social-emotional learning, but they still had that need. Camp is an impactful way for kids to be introduced to these concepts, especially when campers receive the supports and structure they need,” she says.

Camp counselors are selected specifically for their expertise and are provided a weeklong orientation and training session before the start of camp.

For the inaugural summer, counselors were students in the fields of social work, psychology, and nursing. Counselors and the Camp O leadership team supported kids so they could have the best time possible — while parents have peace of mind that their children are in experienced hands.

Best of all, campers have a truly fun summer camp experience — many for the first time in their lives.

“A lot of parents told us that their children went to other camps and never wanted to go back. It was a struggle to get them to attend. But with Camp O, they happily got up and got ready. It was really gratifying,” Badesch says, adding that she witnessed plenty of spontaneous friendships grow at Camp O.

Camp O for your child

Camp O is expanding in 2023 to accommodate more campers. Parents can reach out to find out if their child is a good fit.

“We’re looking for kids who are socially interested but who struggle with social-emotional skills—campers who require additional supports and structure to have a successful camp experience,” Badesch explains. In addition, she states that candidates might have a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder or may have anxiety or depression, a learning disorder, or have been ostracized at school.

“We have seen that the need is more expansive than it would have been without COVID,” she says. “Even typically developing children have missed out on significant years of social development because of the pandemic. Camp O offers a great way for these young people to feel more comfortable and more caught up, which is really meaningful.”

Learn more about Camp O and The Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School. Visit oschool.org/programs/camp-o.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.


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