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United Counseling Service encourages campers to “Be a Kid”

NORTH BENNINGTON — While summer camp is a cherished childhood memory for many, traditional day camps are not always accessible for youth with trauma, autism, or behavioral problems.

In an effort to provide that iconic camp experience, Bennington’s United Counseling Services (UCS) designed Camp Be A Kid to embrace these children and foster their growth throughout the summer. Now in its fifth year, the camp provides fun and therapeutic activities to kids over five weeks.

“We really found a need for kids to have the summer camp day experience,”said camp director Katie Aiken, who is also a program manager for the Youth and Family Services division of UCS. “A lot of our camps in the community aren’t equipped to handle behavioral issues and kids with trauma and other mental health issues.”

When Aiken was designated to run Camp Be a Kid in its third year, she endeavored to give the program a sharper focus. One of the ways she did this is by splitting the camp into two groups by age.

“It started out being a camp for kids 12 and under, but as the kids really loved coming to camp they were getting older,” said Aiken. “We really wanted to fit something in for our Middle School group that was aging out of our regular camp.”

This year the camp, which runs from Tuesday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., was organized so that children under 10 years old can come on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with kids from 11 to 14 attending on Thursdays.

During this time campers can participate in age appropriate activities that incorporate aspects of mindfulness and therapy, working directly with clinicians and community support workers from UCS.

“It really helps the clinicians as well because they’re getting to see a totally different side of the kids on their caseload,” said Aiken. “It helps their deeper connection, and when they’re doing the deeper therapy it really helps to build that trust even more.”

The camp, which is available to children working with UCS at no cost, encourages healthy behaviors well after summer ends according to Aiken.

“The kids that are in this camp, without even knowing it, are gaining skills that will benefit them the rest of their lives,” said Aiken, highlighting teamwork, mindfulness, and conflict resolution. “They’re learning these skills through fun therapeutic activities that they don’t even realize they’re getting, but they’re applying them.”

“They learn the skills here in a structured environment, then they get to go home and apply the skills,” said Andrea Mook, an employee of UCS participating in Camp Be a Kid. “There’s a lot of support here and there’s a lot of learning moments that come up. We learn a lot too, and it’s great for building relationships with kids that aren’t on your caseload.”

The camp also provides structure and growth opportunities for kids that may struggle during summer vacation.

“The amount of family emergency calls that we take in every day have dropped off considerably during camp time,” said Aiken. “It really helps the kids.”

To operate Camp Be a Kid extra hands are often needed, and this year UCS hired six temporary employees to address that need.

“Every year we hire temporary summer staff and they go through a very long and rigorous week long training,” said Aiken. “They’re primarily made up of teachers or college students that are going for their degrees in Psychology.”

For the campers themselves, the program provides a unique opportunity to really “Be a Kid.”

“I like going out to explore the wilderness and learn new stuff about the world,” said first-year camper Lorcain Caccamo. “We get to go fishing, swimming, and we get to play air hockey.”

“I love to see the smile on the kids faces every day. It’s great to see them make progress throughout the week on different skills and activities,” said Mook. “When a kid catches a fish for the first time after trying over and over again, it’s just awesome.”

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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