Summer is just around the bend, and while some parents can simply plan to drop off their kids at the local rec center, parents with both special-needs and typical children face a different challenge: finding summertime activities all their kids can enjoy together.
Father of three Josh Schilling, whose oldest son Nicholas, now 23, has multiple disabilities (including autism, intellectual disability, cerebral palsy, seizure disorder, and is nonverbal), says he and his wife Jackie struggled to find summer activities for their son.
In 2005, the couple helped launch a camp called HEROES (Helping Everyone Reach Outstanding Educational Success), based in Richardson.
But, the couple realized the community needed more. As their family grew (they have a 12-year-old daughter, Kiersten, and 9-year-old son, Ethan), the importance of inclusion became even more apparent—not just for the sake of convenience, but to work together to learn critical life skills and acceptance from one another, he explains.
“[The camp] accepts all students no matter what physical, cognitive, medical or behavioral needs that they require. We turn away no one,” he says. That includes children with no disabilities at all.
More Than ‘Kum Bah Ya’
Today, the summer-long day camp is a setting where kids (ages 3 and older) with and without special-needs can participate in an array of age- and ability-based activities—which go far beyond the typical camp offering. Yes, traditional arts and crafts are included, as is twice a week swimming at the local YMCA, but that’s just the beginning. “All campers have access to yoga therapy, occupational therapy, music therapy and karate at least two times a week,” says Schilling. “We have speech therapy integrated into the classrooms and embedded in the activities. All campers are pushed to maximum participation and independence.”
He explains, “For students who do not have disabilities, they learn compassion and acceptance of their peers with disabilities, breaking a stigma that has been ingrained in past generations that people with disabilities cannot do much or are not expected to. For students with disabilities, peer influence is so much greater than teacher/adult influence. It is a superior way to teach social skills and modeling.”
Indeed, self-help skills take center stage. At the start of the week, the kids come up with their own lunch menus and the oldest group takes charge of grocery shopping. The children can also volunteer in the community or take on a job assignment to support a local business, with HEROES providing transportation. “It comes down to educating our campers on how to be a contributing member of society no matter what [their] limitations,” Schilling says. “Our goal for typically developing campers is to gain compassion and understanding at a young age,” he adds.
More Inclusive Opportunities
Several other area camps provide much-needed inclusive recreation as well. At Camp Summit in Argyle (about 15 miles north of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport), the camp organizers take full advantage of their natural setting—117 wooded acres—by offering swimming, horseback riding, ropes courses, fishing and more. While the camp places no stipulation on the degree of a child’s disability, it only offers all-inclusive retreats twice per year.
One thing all the camps have in common is a positive attitude. Schilling sums it up best: “To work with this population of students [with and without disabilities] you have to have heart and believe that with the appropriate supports and accommodations, any and all can succeed.”
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in our 2010 Spring issue of Thrive, with updates made this year. Since this article ran, HEROES launched a year-round program for young adults in January 2017. For more information, contact HEROES.
For a list of summer camps specialized just for children with special needs, please see our Directory.