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"Special Needs Summer Camps" by Brad Grant


There are hundreds of Special Needs camps across the U.S who Camp America work alongside in-order to help find YOU, the perfect counselor.

Whether you’ve experience of working with the special needs population or not, it does not matter. I can’t stress that point enough. Throw the nerves away, and keep reading!

I worked at a SEN camp back in 2014 (Special Educational Needs). I had no experience prior to this and when I completed my Camp America application back in August 2013, I remember contemplating whether to put SEN camps as a preference down on my application. (You do have a choice, and by the end of this blog post, I hope you put it down as one of your choices).

I knew it would be such a rewarding thing to do, but having no experience was quite daunting for me. After doing some research, I soon allowed my application to be sent to SEN camps.

In December 2013, whilst I was on holiday, a SEN camp contacted me: Camp Huntington. We agreed to set up a Skype interview in January 2014, once I returned home from my holidays and we could talk further.

The 4th January, I had that all important Skype call with an awesome lady called Alex. We chatted for about 1hour and afterwards, she offered me a position as a General Counselor. Once the call had finished, I was jumping with excitement, I couldn’t believe I would be heading to spend three months of my summer in New York in six months time.

The next day however, I woke up and had this sudden feeling of nerves, questioning had I done the right thing, the ‘no’ experience part playing on mind. During my interview Alex reassured me that this wasn’t a problem, as long as I was willing to challenge myself, be creative, fun, loving and happy, I would be fine. I kept reminding myself of that, right up until the day I flew on the 14th June 2014.

At my camp there was a good mix of counselors from the UK and the U.S. Some had experience of working with the special needs population, others hadn’t. Did it matter? No. It was orientation week, (a training week, before the campers arrived). It’s important to know that every camp has orientation, some a week long, some two, depending on the camp you’re placed at. This is the perfect time to ask lots of questions, meet your co-counselors, get involved and see what area of the camp you’ll be working in and adjust.

During our orientation, we had lots of team-bonding sessions, including question and answer sessions from returners and importantly, campers parents. One lady, whom I won’t forget, came to talk to us about how our summer would go, and what we as counselors should expect, and what they as parents expect and what their children also expect.

The lady had a son who had a form of special needs, he would be coming to camp for part of the summer. She discussed one my biggest nerves, and I think most peoples nerves, if they have no experience and I have to say now, a topic I think puts a lot of people off from applying to SEN camps: personal care duties. The lady discussed how it has been hard for not only her teenage son growing up who she provides 24/7 care for, but her too.

During the few weeks her son would be at camp, she and many other parents have to put all their trust in us counselors, they’re counting on us to make sure we treat their children right, providing a fun, loving, and therapeutic summer. The lady asked us one thing, and that was not to judge her son. She said when providing personal care, once you’ve done it once, you’ve done it a thousand times. This statement couldn’t be more accurate, it’s not a big deal, and actually there shouldn’t be much time spent thinking about it. If you required assistance or your friend or family member did, then I’m sure you would want someone to assist you or them, without judgement and with care, so please don’t let this refrain you from applying.

In terms of bunk life, I shared a bunk with two other counselors and we looked after roughly six teenage boys. The support from your co-counselors is a necessity. If you’re off to a special needs camp this year, bond a good relationship with your co-counselors, there will be more fun times than bad, but there will be times of difficulty, don’t think there won’t be. Whether that’s at 2am in the morning when a camper won’t sleep, or at 7am when a camper won’t get up, or at 6pm when a camper won’t eat their meal, you will get frustrated and having your co-counselors support will get you through this. Patience is one of the many skills you learn at summer camp, hold onto it!

At my camp we had night duty and snores, night duty was 9pm – 12am and a counselor had to be on the porch of the bunk, or inside the bunk until the snores counselor clocked onto shift at 12am – 7am. If anything happened between 12am – 7am then it was your duty to assist where needed (in your cabin) likewise with night duty 9pm – 12am. But going back to my point about building a good relationship with your co-counselors, we all helped each other out and on many occasions, we would wake each other up for support and at one point, we’d all wake up together. I have friends who I met traveling who also worked at special needs camps and their camps had a similar set-up, but don’t worry, there is senior staff on duty through the night, you’re not alone! Of course this would all be discussed during interview stage and during your camps orientation as well.

We had 1 day off a week at my camp and evenings too, when you weren’t on duty of course. Make the most of your day off! Whether that be exploring the local town, venturing out into the city, go have fun! You’ll find come your day off, you’ll be exhausted but don’t let it beat you, go and explore, this is a summer of a life-time, make it worth while! I and others ventured into New York quite a lot as this was the nearest city, we got a bus the night before our day off, stayed over in a hostel or hotel, then hit the city bright and early before catching the bus back to camp later that night. We also had days where we went to the mall in surrounding towns, as well as exploring our own own little towns, New Paltz, Kingston and High Falls.

My camp ran for a total of nine weeks, 10 with orientation! Some campers stayed for a week or two, some stayed the whole summer, each camp is different! This is what a typical day was like at my camp:

7:20am Wake Up
8:15-8:25am Morning Circle: Stretching, Daily Events
8:30-9:00am Breakfast
9:00-9:45am Clean-up/Inspection
10:00-10:50am 1st Activity
11:00-11:50am 2nd Activity
12:00-12:30pm Lunch
12:30-2:00pn Rest Time (Staff time off)
2:05-2:55pm 3rd Activity
3:00-3:40pm 4th Activity
3:40-3:55pm Snack
4:05-4:50pm 5th Activity
5:00-5:50pm 6th Activity
6:00=6:30pm Dinner
6:30-7:00pm Free play, Prepare for Evening Activity
7:00-8:30pm Evening Activity
8:30pm Back to bunks, ready for bed
9:00pm Lights out, bedtime

As you can see, there was lots of activities throughout the day at camp, many of which are similar to the activities at non-special needs camps, including swimming, arts & crafts and cooking.  The only difference being is the activities are less competitive and they’re run in a way to meet each campers own individual needs.

The ratio of counselors to campers is also different to those at non-special needs camps. The children and adults at special needs camp require extra care and therefore, depending on the camp you’re place at, you may be put 1:1 or 1:2 with a camper(s). Either way, you’ll form amazing bonds with the campers you look after.

I could write for ages as to why you should put a SEN camp down as one of your preferences but to keep it brief – just do it. You’ll have a summer like no other, filled with inspiration, happiness and love, like you would at any camp but a SEN camp offers a completely different experience and an experience words rarely do justice for.

During my four weeks into camp, I posted the below to my Instagram page:

I captioned it by explaining the children and young adults at camp are all unique in their own individual way and all have a talent. The picture above shows math calculations which a then 10yr old boy with Autism who I’d been looking after completed. He worked those calculations out within seconds of me writing them, something I personally would not be able to do, because math is not my thing. These little things make your day at camp, and having a disability really doesn’t define what you can and cannot do, people with disabilities are just like us, they can do things we can’t do, just like we can do things they can’t, but they all have a talent like all of us.

Lastly, I just want to say SEN camps lack male counselors and each year SEN camps are always looking to hire a high percentage of male counselors so please do consider applying to a SEN camp.

Speak soon,