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Special Needs Summer Camps Promote Independence, Socialization and Fun

Camp Woodlands

The benefits of summer camp are numerous—independence, socialization, skill-building, the opportunity to try new experiences, and all-around fun.

For children with special needs, summer camp is just as important, something that Jessica Hall-Wirth knows firsthand. The Slippery Rock associate professor spends her summers as the director of students with exceptional abilities at the Pine Richland Youth Center.

“I have a brother who has multiple disabilities, which is where the passion for going into teaching came from,” she said.

The program is geared toward students in K-12th grades, with the mission of enhancing the social, educational and transitional skills of participants. The camp serves students with special needs, including autism, cerebral palsy, behavioral challenges and more.

The program is essentially an extension of the school year but with fun summer activities incorporated. In addition to working on individualized goals, children engage in typical summer camp activities, such as water games, arts and crafts and the like, and are integrated with neurotypical children.

“Growing up, I went to summer camp every single year,” said Hall-Wirth. “There’s nothing more impactful than when you can spend it with other children who have different experiences; you can learn from them.

“Summer camp pushes kids out of their comfort zones. You learn so many skills you can’t learn in school,” she added. “And it’s fun.”

Hall-Wirth said that the program is also beneficial for students who are neurotypical, as it teaches them to be inclusive with each other, and that it’s okay that some kids are different. “This greater awareness teaches them to be advocates for their friends, and a lot of them do become friends,” she said.

Beginning in the summer of 2022, children who are deaf, hard of hearing or a CODA (child of deaf adults) had an opportunity to attend Deaf Camp, sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), a sports ministry for students and coaches. The ministry, which has been around for 68 years, has 2,300 people or more on staff around the world and is in more than 100 countries.

“Last year, worldwide, we had more than 500 sports camps,” said Pittsburgh Metro Director Brian Cook, who is originally from Shaler and is himself a CODA. Growing up using sign language, Cook, who has been a teacher and a wrestling coach for more than 20 years, had a special affinity for helping the deaf community.

“I went to an FCA training in Kansas City, MO two years ago—there were 50 FCA directors there from across the country and the facilitator asked us a specific question: ‘What is a need in your area that God has designed you to uniquely fulfill?’” he said.

That led Cook to establish a Deaf Camp, the first camp in FCA history specifically for deaf and hard of hearing kids.

“I felt intimidated by that task because much of my experience professionally has been in the hearing world. The more I researched deaf education and researched deaf youth camps, the more I saw there was a tremendous need,” said Cook.

With a 28-member volunteer staff fully fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), 21 children registered for last year’s camp in three different sports: flag football, soccer and basketball. The days also included a speaker and small group Bible study.

As there are limited opportunities for deaf people to engage with both the local church and in sports in their native language of ASL, Cook felt that the first camp was a success. “Everybody was just extremely excited, thankful, and I’d say that there was a great spirit of joy and unity at the camp. It was really amazing to see how both deaf and hearing people were connecting with one another and having fun through sport, all in ASL,” he said.

“A lot of times, deafness is viewed as a disability,” he continued, “but it should definitely be viewed as a unique cultural and language group. ASL is what connects the deaf community. It is how they best communicate. It’s a visual language, and that is what makes the camp special.”

The Woodlands is located on a 52-acre campus that straddles both Marshall Township and Bradford Woods. Its mission is to have a recreational retreat space for individuals with disabilities and chronic illnesses while simultaneously providing a respite to caregivers.

During the school year, The Woodlands runs weekend retreats, as well as year-round programming and social clubs. In the summer, it holds weeklong, overnight camps aptly named Camp Woodland. The participants are grouped by age, though there is no upper age limit.

“It’s a place that can grow with the individuals as they grow,” said Samantha Ellwood, executive director of The Woodlands Foundation.

Camp Woodlands offers typical summer experiences, such as sports, games and creative arts, which are adapted to meet the needs of the participants, whatever those needs may be. One exceedingly popular themed camp is the music camp, called Notes from the Heart. The Woodlands offers two, one-week camps that each end with a concert. One session serves ages 14-25 and the second is for ages 26 and up. The camp usually books the first day that registration opens.

“We don’t define people by what they can’t do. We bring in professional artists and treat our participants like the professional musicians they are,” said Ellwood.

During the week, the students play instruments, work with a composer to create music, and do a coffee house event before the final concert. “It is a special, magical experience. My favorite thing, hands-down, is the songs that our participants write.They’ve done a song saying goodbye to our retired kitchen manager, a dedication to a dog that had passed away, and songs about friendship,” said Ellwood.

In partnership with UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, another unique camp offered by The Woodlands is Camp Inspire, a camp for children who are ventilator-dependent.

One thing that The Woodlands is excited about this year is the reopening of an amphitheater that hasn’t been used in years. Following a million-dollar rehabilitation, the new space will be christened The Lambert Family Amphitheater and is slated to open in May.

“There will be a huge fireplace where we can roast marshmallows, do camp songs and host concerts,” said Ellwood.

The benefits of summer camp apply equally to all children. “At The Woodlands, campers can test the waters of independence while still feeling supported,” said Ellwood. “I think the biggest thing, whether they have a disability or not, is really independence.”

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