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By Aaliyah Bowden

While many kids were unable to make it to camp this summer, some with special needs were still able to roast marshmallows by the campfire, have sing-alongs and make paintings this summer whether they were at an actual campsite or only there virtually.

Joshua C., an 18-year-old with autism, has attended Camp Royall in Chatham County since he was younger. Josh said he enjoyed making new friends, going swimming and gathering by the campfire this summer.

“Camp Royall has been a blessing beyond words, giving our family a chance to breathe and get some much-needed R&R,” said Dale C., Joshua’s dad.

For some parents who have a child with autism or another type of disability, it has been difficult this summer during the coronavirus pandemic to find ways for their children to spend time with others. Sending their child to camp this summer may have been the only way for them to have social interaction and learn new life skills.

“A part of these special needs camps is about helping kids connect with other kids who are experiencing similar challenges,” said Tom Rosenburg, the chief executive officer of the  American Camp Association.

“It helps them to have some social and emotional connection — to laugh and to have joy.”

As kids get back to school, some of the safety measures taken at summer day and overnight camps will be useful this fall according to a press release Rosenburg’s organization released in early August.

With some day and residential camps having confirmed cases of COVID-19, some parents decided not to send their child to camp this summer. But some special needs camps decided to continue with residential camps while others closed or moved to a virtual platform.

Campers at Camp Royall in Chatham County roasted marshmallows while at camp this summer. Photo courtesy of Sara Gage

Perks to Virtual Camps

One good thing about virtual camps this summer is they allowed some kids with disabilities from everywhere in the United States to engage with peers.

A group of youth camp leaders from the outreach camp TopSoccer in New Jersey founded the non-profit, CampBuddEConnect, which allowed special needs kids from different states to interact with each other for two to three hours on Zoom for five days a week.

At BuddEConnect, “Fun comes first.” The campers sang and participated in fun activities such as cup stacking, drawing, making slime and paper fortune tellers. The idea was to make it feel different from school for the campers, according to Doon Wintz, the founding adviser.

Virtual camps for kids with learning challenges that often accompany autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and Down Syndrome have allowed these kids to reconnect and explore their own interests.

A downside to virtual camps was that kids with learning disabilities lacked that in-person interaction with camp counselors and their peers. That type of connection often works better for kids with learning disabilities who struggle with social interaction, according to Jon Blalock, the camp director at Camp Lakey Gap.

Even though camps had to rearrange campsites and accommodate campers with specific disabilities, some special needs camps in the state continued to offer overnight options.

Campers at Camp Lakey Gap virtual camp show off items from their house that are yellow, part of a Color Scavenger Hunt. Camp Lakey Gap virtual camp in Buncombe County had campers ages 10 to 45 with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other developmental disorders who tuned into three free Zoom sessions each week. Even though virtual camps were convenient this summer, it was harder for camp leaders to feel like they were making an impact.
“In the virtual space it’s much harder to connect,” said Jon Blalock, the camp director at Camp Lakey Gap. “So there is a need on the part of providers to have to work hard to convey the same energy, without necessarily having the same experience from the audience.”
Photo courtesy of Jon Blalock

Autism camps forge ahead

For six weeks straight starting on July 5th, Camp Royall in Chatham County held a week-long camp for school-kids with autism. Campers were able to make new friends and go kayaking, boating, hiking, and zaplining, which is similar to ziplining but has a seat for the camper.

“A lot of our campers don’t use verbal communication, or don’t understand verbal communication so you really have to model for them and show them how to enjoy it,” said Sara Gage, the director at Camp Royall.

Many kids with autism process information differently according to David Laxton, the director of communications for the Autism Society of North Carolina.

For example, some kids with autism spectrum disorder have short attention spans, making it harder for them to focus on a specific activity for a long time. For these campers, they were able to work one-on-one with a camp counselor at Camp Royall on activities such as paintings and drawings.

Similar to other residential camps in the state, kids were placed into small groups, or cohorts within their cabin and traveled with their group to do activities, in keeping with American Camp Association guidelines.

Although some of the campers were not able to wear a mask, staff ensured they were at least six feet apart from one another.

Some of the activities at Camp Royall, such as going on hayrides, were modified this summer to enforce social distancing. For instance, only 10 campers at a time could go on the hayride this summer compared to the 30 campers last year. Hand sanitizer stations were outside for use after hiking, boating and other outdoor activities.

Unlike previous years, campers could not share art supplies or sticks when roasting marshmallows by the campfire. All the kids at Camp Royall were given their own art kits with markers, pencils and paintbrushes for arts and crafts.

Some of the campers made slime or tie-dyed t-shirts. Others painted the campgrounds to leave behind their mark. Between activities, the camp staff did thorough cleanings and then waited 30 minutes before inviting the next group to their area.

At night and during down-time, most kids had their own rooms while a couple of campers slept together in one big room where it was easier to social distance.

Some campers at Talisman Summer Camps play a water game on a pond toy called the Rockit. The object of the game is to rock the toy and try to get other players to fall off. Photo courtesy Linda Tatsapaugh.

Inclusive Special Needs Camps

Other camps in the state opened their doors to more kids and adults, regardless of their disability.

For instance, Talisman Summer Camps operate separate residential camps for kids and young adults with developmental disorders such as autism, Asperger’s, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Although the organization had to reduce its capacity to 55 campers instead of about 80, the camp was still able to open on June 20. The staff members and some of their families put in long hours to help prepare.

“The (amount of) money blew us away just to do preparedness and cleaning, then being able to source the products,” said Robyn Mims, the admissions director at Talisman Summer Camps. “It was a nightmare, an absolute nightmare.”

It cost the private organization about $2,500 to purchase gloves, masks, thermometers, hand sanitizer dispensers and disinfectants, according to Linda Tatsapaugh, the operations director at Talisman. The camp also paid for extra cleaning to be done between sessions and had the kitchen staff work overtime to stagger mealtimes.

Back in the spring, when the camp was preparing for opening, they received a $4,000  Economic Injury Disaster grant to pay workers. A couple of months later, they received a Paycheck Protection Program loan and an EID loan which helped cover operating expenses.

Ray, 10, who has autism went zaplining at Camp Royall this summer. Photo courtesy Sara Gage

Since most of the campers at Talisman Summer Camps take prescribed medications for their health conditions, the camp has an infirmary that keeps medication records and ensures each camper gets what they need.

Although campers did the usual activities such as learning camping skills, making charm bracelets and tie-dying, they also learned basic social skills and how to be more independent. For instance, camp leaders taught the campers how to better interact and resolve conflicts with some of their peers.

And though most of the field-trip excursions like taking college tours were canceled this summer, campers were still able to go on nature hikes and visit waterfalls.

Most of the outdoor activities at camp such as archery, hiking, rock climbing and canoeing made it easier for kids to social distance.

Taking it virtual

Camp Lakey Gap in Buncombe County offers a lesson in what is possible when you take camp virtual.

It had campers ages 10 to 45 with autism, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy and others with developmental disorders who tuned into three free Zoom sessions each week.

Even though virtual camps were convenient this summer, some camp leaders who participated in them said they weren’t sure they were making as much of an impact.

“In the virtual space it’s much harder to connect,” said Jon Blalock, the camp director at Camp Lakey Gap. “So there is a need on the part of providers to have to work hard to convey the same energy, without necessarily having the same experience from the audience.”

Hanna, 18, a camper at Camp Lakey Gap virtual camp, drew a picture of one of the volunteers for the camp. For the talent show at camp, she sang “Meant to Be” by Bebe Rexha. Photo courtesy: Jon Blalock

Although the platform was different, it didn’t stop the kids from bonding with each other thanks to tools on Zoom that make it possible to create dreamy beach, mountain or exotic place backgrounds or incorporate fictional characters from the Avengers, Star Wars or other science fiction hits.

During Hello and Tell, some campers got creative by introducing themselves with a favorite stuffed animal, a pet or action figures to show off to the group.

Campers even got to participate in those memorable sing-alongs, but it was different this year. Take Old MacDonald, that nursery rhyme with all the ee-i-ee-i-os. The song would land on a camper’s screen and a picture of an animal would appear. Then it was their turn to sing out the lyrics.

The camp ended on August 7. As is often the case when camp is over, campers are not ready to let go of the connections.

One of the adult campers was so sad it was all over that Camp Lakey Gap created a virtual social group on Facebook.

This summer has shown that kids can learn anywhere whether it’s through in-person instruction or virtually, American Camp Association’s Rosenburg said.

“There’s an opportunity to, perhaps offer the possibility of experiential learning, or kinetic learning, in addition to in-classroom learning for children as part of their education this year.”

Joshua C., 18, who has autism has attended Camp Royall in Chatham County since he was younger. Josh said he enjoyed making new friends, going swimming and gathering by the campfire this summer.
“Camp Royall has been a blessing beyond words, giving our family a chance to breathe and get some much-needed R&R,” said Dale C., Joshua’s Dad, who also has another son who attended Camp Royall in the past.
Photo courtesy: Camp Royall

Aaliyah Bowden

Our 2020 summer intern, Aaliyah is a senior at North Carolina Central University majoring in mass communication with a concentration in journalism. She is currently the Co-Editor-in-chief for the school's...