Life can be very lonely when it feels like people don’t “get” you. Our campers tell us that camp gives them an opportunity to be a part of something bigger, to be a member of a community where people understand them and appreciate them for who they are. Many people find it hard to imagine that summer camp can provide more than a few weeks of fun activities. And yet, camp is so much more. Residential camp gives children an opportunity to meet peers who have similar interests and experiences, but also to be more independent, to learn resiliency, to feel a sense of agency.
Our camp is intentionally designed for children (ages 8-18) who identify as “quirky”. Many of them have an NVLD diagnosis, some have an ASD (Aspergers) diagnosis and others aren’t formally diagnosed but struggle to make friends in a “typical” setting. We sometimes hear from parents who are considering camp that they can’t imagine sending their child away for three weeks and they worry that not only might their child be lonely or anxious but that “she won’t make it”. It’s often hard to help parents understand that taking the first step is the hardest and once at camp, campers tell us they experience a sense of relief. So many of our campers have shared stories with us over the past 10 years that echo similar themes: feeling isolated, being lonely, sad, depressed, being scared, feeling like no one really understands them.
Some campers tell us they don’t even know where to begin socially. Camp allows us to help campers practice those skills. Often, in typical camp settings, bunk groups are made up of 12-15 children. Not only is there a lot of social pressure to “fit in”, but bunks can be loud, chaotic and disorganized. Programs are designed to keep campers guessing about what’s next and schedules feel rushed. For many children, this works and that type of camp is an amazing experience that can be navigated seamlessly. For our campers, a loud and chaotic living situation would pose many challenges. By creating groups that are smaller with bunks that are well organized with visual reminders and expectations clearly laid out, our campers are more relaxed. They have more emotional energy to be socially available to one another and receptive to staff feedback.
Camp parents often provide the best insight into how a summer at camp has changed their lives. Here is one piece of feedback that was shared with us:
Your camp is a special and unique place. There our “quirky” daughter is at home and feels like an important part of the community. She has true friends and feels safe enough to take social risks. Many years ago when we realized the complexity of Sarah’s learning challenges and potential impact a “typical” setting had on her self-worth, we sadly gave up the thought/dream of our Sarah experiencing overnight summer camp; it was not a risk we were willing to take. Then, we found your camp! After 3 ½ weeks, Sarah returned a confident, independent, articulate, and stunningly more mature teenager who not only braved through a challenging case of homesickness but in the end proudly labeled camp as her “home away from home”. We are forever grateful for not only the countless skills Sarah will take with her throughout her life but the spirit of Akeela that is forever imprinted into her heart.
Sending a child to camp can be scary for any parent. If your child has learning and/or social skills differences, it can be even more intimidating. However, it’s these children who have the most to benefit from a camp experience. The key is to find the right camp for your child.
Debbie and Eric are the directors of Camp Akeela (campakeela.com), a co-ed, overnight camp with locations in Vermont and Wisconsin. Debbie has a Masters in School Counseling and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology; Eric has a Masters in Education from Harvard University. Within a well-rounded, traditional camp program, Akeela is a small, supportive community that helps campers improve their social skills. Akeela focuses on building a community in which campers feel great about themselves, make friends, try new things and have fun!