Accessible summer camps offer kids with disabilities a chance to shine
Summer “sleepaway” camps give kids the unique opportunity to spend time in nature, meet new friends, and learn how to be self-sufficient in a safe and fun environment.
A largely American practice, the concept of summer camp has increased in popularity since its advent shortly after the industrial revolution. According to the American Camp Association, nearly 11 million individuals attend camp every year in the United States.
However, for families of children with disabilities and serious or terminal illnesses summer camp can feel frustratingly out of reach.
This is where camps with a focus on accessibility come in. There are a number of organizations across the country that have created more accessible summer camps, including Washington’s Camp Prime Time, a nonprofit giving disabled and critically ill children and their families the opportunity to spend a relaxing weekend camping at no cost to them.
For more than 35 years, Camp Prime Time has invited families to enjoy nature and classic camp activities away from the constant stress of doctor’s visits, medical bills and unwelcome stares.
Larger nonprofit groups also attend camp in Wenatchee National Forest. Camp Prime Time has hosted groups of children with autism, Down syndrome and those confined to wheelchairs.
When camps include the whole family, it’s an opportunity for everyone to make connections, learn from each other and offer welcome support. Joshua Callanan, executive director of Camp Prime Time, says that this model provides parents, siblings and campers with a unique forum for discussion. “Families have the opportunity to grow with each other. They can exchange contacts and talk about the future…It’s a nice way to build community.”
This connection and growth continues as campers participate in beloved summer activities like boat rides, horseback riding and singing around a campfire. Some kids find new activities intimidating, but summer camp offers gentle challenges and the opportunity to try new things like steering a boat or horseback riding.
While an activity like horseback riding may have many physical benefits, Callanan says that the emotional and mental challenges of riding a horse are often the most impactful for vulnerable kids.
“It also creates responsibility — being with the horse, commanding the horse, mounting the horse. It comes with its own challenges.”
While some campers may struggle to interact with peers, Callanan says interacting with large animals especially can build kid’s confidence and allow special kids to come “out of their shells.”
Even kids who can’t participate in activities in the traditional sense can benefit from shared camp experiences.
Camper Ryan suffered from a rare genetic disorder that confined him to a wheelchair. Despite this physical limitation, he decided to come watch the other children ride the horses.
After the activity, he maneuvered his wheelchair into the corral. A volunteer brought over Geronimo, an especially docile horse, to say “hello.” Ryan started to pet him, but with limited mobility in his hands couldn’t hold them up after just a few minutes. Geronimo leaned forward and gently placed his head in Ryan’s lap, allowing him to participate in a fun and unexpected way.
At Camp Prime Time, riding the pontoon boat across nearby Clear Lake is another one of those opportunities to learn new skills. The boat design allows kids of all abilities to explore. Best of all, Callanan says, every child gets to “captain” the boat for 5 to 10 minutes of the journey; possibly one of the few times and environments where special campers can be a leader among their peers.
All of this activity builds hearty appetites; campers and their families need fuel for busy days. Sitting down to meals cooked by volunteers can provide much needed respite to caregivers who have been cooking and caring for their disabled or sick children for years.
“For a lot of them, this is their big camp or big vacation of the year,” Callanan said.
In a safe, stress-free environment, families are able to relax and enjoy quality time with one another. This kind of break can be integral to family health; as many as 87% of couples raising a disabled or ill child will end up filing for divorce. The chance to take a break and have some fun has an impact.
Accessible summer camps offer disabled or critically ill kids and their families a unique opportunity to spend time in the outdoors, learn new skills, meet like-minded friends and destress in a fun and accepting camp environment.
At Camp Prime Time, we enrich the lives of families with children who are seriously/terminally ill or developmentally disabled by providing an outdoor wilderness experience, where families can enjoy themselves in a caring atmosphere without financial burden.