By: Michelle Burnham, Family Outreach Supervisor
When I told my boss we wanted to do a summer camp for 40-50 kids this year she said, “Ok” and… “Are you sure?!” And it was more hectic than expected because it ended up being a total of 80 plus kids split into two camps of what we categorized as “older and younger” kids’ camp. As the date approached we thought, “How are we going to manage this?”, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”…and the first week confirmed that this was going to be hard work. Many of the staff said they left camp feeling completely exhausted and went to bed very early. There were definite concerns of how they were going to handle this all summer and keep up with their regular case loads.
Well they did handle it all summer, and it was extremely hard work, but every single staff person agreed that it was one of the most rewarding experiences they have ever had. “Camp Be a Kid” (the name came from a five year old camper), consisted of therapeutic clinicians, respite and community support staff with a 1-4 staff ratio. This provided the platform to teach kids with various challenging issues from trauma to attachment to autism and various other disorders, how to socialize and have fun without the risk of being kicked out. The goal of Camp was that everyone mattered, and no one, no-matter what behavior they displayed, would be asked to leave.
The result was amazing. The kids actually learned how to socialize because they had to. There was no other option. They learned to work through their hurts and disagreements. Every day the kids were told the golden rule, “you must be having fun and if you were not, you needed to let someone know”. That was one of the most important rules. The kids made friends. They laughed and challenged themselves. One of the many examples was when the kids had to take a swim test in order to use the docks, I was so impressed with how important this became to them and how determined they were to pass. Some kids took the test 5-6 times never giving up and everyone cheered them on every time.
The older kids went on an adventure ropes course at Magic Mountain. To watch them transform from fear, to excitement, to feeling proud of themselves was inspirational. The staff that went challenged themselves as well, at times showing their fear, and this somehow gave the kids courage to keep trying too. There were so many rewarding experiences and it was the simple things that touched me the most. I saw a child who, prior to camp could not look anyone in the eye, was laughing with a group of new friends. A child who is usually explosive, giving another child in need a hug. The camper who never went fishing, who was able to experience feeling so proud after catching the biggest fish. The staff came back with story after story of amazing experiences that lead to a child feeling proud, feeling accomplished and accepted.
I cannot tell you specifically why it was successful, except that it was. This was one of the wildest endeavors that we have taken on and it would not have been possible without a very dedicated staff. It was an old fashioned camp that provided a safe place for kids to have fun, explore and discover themselves, and learn. There was not one particular technique or therapeutic intervention that we used. Maybe the answer is simple. Maybe it was the dedicated staff that had a lot of compassion and who were not afraid of hard work that made this so successful. I am so very proud of the staff and their willingness to not only commit but go above and beyond. I think kids know when you feel that they matter. Their instincts told them that we really did want them to have fun and just be a kid!