"Max is the heart of the camp. He hugs and encourages everyone." That was a text I got from Max's camp counselor that made me beam. This was his seventh summer at Camp Moore, which has week-long sessions—he's been going since he was 7. I still remember how tearful he was when we first dropped him off. I emailed the director repeatedly, starting in the car on the way home. The next day, he called and said Max had danced the night away at a party. He sent me a photo of Max with a gigantic grin on his face. He's loved camp ever since, and it's been awesome for him and Dave and me, too.
For a while, Max would do that one week of camp then continue with the Extended School Year program. I looked around at some other local camps. One day camp wouldn't take us because Max wasn't yet toilet trained. A sleepaway camp wasn't able to give Max the personal care support he needed. But then, we found programs at Jewish camps that welcomed Max. Ironically, while our experience had been that temples weren't typically inclusive of kids with disabilities, the faith-based camps were. Max now attends camp for the better part of summer.
Dave and I decided that camp would be good for Max in many ways. We also figured you are only a kid/teen once, and he deserved to enjoy the same summer fun that other children experience. Max is not a kid who regresses with education or skills, which was also a consideration; it's not an option for every one.
Camp has done amazing things for Max. He's more independent at camp. He can be social 24/7 (although happily he does sleep at night). He tries new things—archery, hockey, bowling with a giant ball. He sharpens his skills; he's become quite the air hockey and basketball pro thanks to camp. He makes arts and crafts. He eats s'mores galore. He sings at performances. He experiences connections with peers, disabled or not, that he doesn't enjoy the rest of the year. He has the time of his life. Because: camp.
Camp has done amazing things for me and Dave, too. We can rest assured that Max is in good hands, and we can rest, period. Sabrina is also away at camp, and having just one child at home is almost a staycation. Most of all, I appreciate the breaks from the doctor appointments, the therapies and the routines. I'm still working, on the job and at home, but I feel carefree. Well, almost.
Here's a list of camps for children and teens with disabilities
I speak with a lot of parents who are worried and doubtful about sending their kids to camp. Will their child be OK without them? Could they possible trust anyone else to make sure their child gets their meds and proper medical attention, eats well and generally receives the help they need? This was me before Max went to camp.
Reality check: Camps that offer programs for kids and teens with disabilities and medical needs know what they are doing. If they can't accommodate your child, they won't accept him (and as frustrating and hurtful as that may feel at the time, it's the truth). The camps Max attends have experienced medical pros on hands. They do a full debriefing on his needs, and are reachable at any time. The counselors send photos, and some camps have private websites where pics are posted. To be sure, not every counselor is outstanding; last year, a friend was upset when her child came home from a camp unkempt and not so clean. But we've had great experiences. (Thanks, Regina!)
Some camps are free; the camp Max is at is generously sponsored by The Elks. Your state's division of developmental disabilities may pay part of the bill. Sometimes, you can find other funding assistance—for example, the California Autism Resource & Evaluation Foundation has a Family Funds grant that pays for autism summer camp. And One Happy Camper offers $1000 off a child's first summer at Jewish camp. Google "grants for camps for kids with disabilities" and "grants for camps for kids with special needs," for starters. You also never know what resources might exist in your own life; a few years ago, unsolicited, our temple offered a small stipend for camp.
If you're considering sending a child with disabilities to camp, whether for a week or most of the summer, visit a few this summer so you can see them in action. I've usually gone on my own, without Max, to speak with the camp director and get tours of the camp. Think about it! Your child will be a happy camper. And, yes, once you get past the OMG-my-child-is-away-from-me-stage: You'll be a happy camper