CAMBRIDGE — “Carlos! You’re not in trouble, but I need to talk to you.” Carlos takes off running, with Mia Klinger in pursuit. “I need you to slow down.” The little boy does, and she leads him to a seat, kneeling beside him.
“I know how well you can do,” she tells him. Later, she explains to a visitor: “He’s anxious. He has trouble with transitions.”
Klinger then comforts a tiny girl with a tummy ache and a boy crying that he was stung by a bee. On a baseball field, there’s a kickball game in progress, “with very few rules and no one out,” as Klinger puts it.
Daybreak Day Camp, which is located at the Fayerweather Street School in Cambridge, is a place for kids who probably would not otherwise experience camp. The 30 youngsters who spend five weeks there have a variety of emotional, social, or behavioral issues. There are kids with autism, ADHD, and mood disorders. Some have learning disabilities. Some are angry. Many are anxious.
“We have some kids who become overwhelmed and aggressive,” says Klinger, 47. “They may lash out in frustration.” Klinger is the camp director who cofounded Daybreak 25 years ago this summer.
Nearly half of this year’s campers have a history of trauma, including diagnoses of PTSD. Some have been exposed to domestic violence. Some are in foster care or live with extended family.
“We see a lot of kids who couldn’t cut it in regular camp,” says Amy Stein, executive director of Cambridge Camping Association Inc., a nonprofit that supports Daybreak and other camps for disadvantaged children.
‘We’re helping them develop the skills to resolve conflicts, to have more resilience’
The campers, most of them from Cambridge and Somerville, are referred from various places, including schools, doctors — even a crossing guard. “She’d see moms having a hard time with their kids, and she’d say, ‘Have you heard of Daybreak?’ ” says Stein.
Camp is either free or paid on a sliding scale according to income. Daybreak is supported through foundation grants, private donors, and its own fund-raising events. Campers have three field trips a week, including bowling, sailing, rowing, picnics at places like Houghton's Pond in Milton, and going to zoos and petting farms. This year’s session ended Friday.
Daybreak has a highly trained staff of 17 counselors for the campers who range in age from 5 to 12. Klinger has 20 years of experience working with special-needs children; one assistant director is a special-ed teacher, the other a school psychologist.
There’s a level of patience among staffers that would make Job jealous. Many counselors return year after year, the better for the children who also tend to return. Some counselors have been Daybreak campers themselves.
It’s late morning, and Klinger approaches a little boy who is groaning. “Tell me what the noise is about,” she says. She stoops to the floor, where he has thrown himself and he climbs onto her knee. He says his arm hurts. He cries. He wants lemonade.
They reach an agreement: orange juice on a counselor’s lap while watching a camp slide show.
“They’re loving, wonderful children from kind, caring families,” Klinger says. “They just need people who listen to them.”
The children often have low self-confidence and a fear of failure because of the challenges they face at school and in social situations and the stigma attached to their various diagnoses. “In five weeks, we’re not going to cure autism or undo trauma,” Klinger says. “We’ve come to think of camp as the access ramp, to get this group of kids in touch with what camp means: friendship, making new memories, learning new skills.”
She tells about the boy, turned away from his town’s youth soccer team, who now dominates the field in camp soccer games. A boy bullied at school becomes the camp’s star entertainer with his Michael Jackson routine.
One thing that has changed in the years since Daybreak began is what science has learned about trauma and its effect on the brain, from returning war veterans to children who may have witnessed violence.
“Trauma changes brain function,” says Klinger. “Some of these kids live in a ‘fight or flight’ moment. Anxiety runs throughout their day. These are kids who have certain needs, and when you get to know them, they may enjoy art, know how to be a good friend, or really want to learn a sport, but they’re embarrassed or afraid. We want to tell a different story about them.”
So she sends a report to the parent or guardian and to the referring agency or school about the positive traits she has observed. The idea being that besides working to bolster campers’ self-images, the camp helps people around them “see the kid in a more successful light.”
At first glance, Daybreak looks pretty much like any other camp. Sometimes it’s a beehive of activity, abuzz in constant noise and motion, and other times a place of quiet refuge for kids who need a lap, a hug, a book. Outbursts, negotiations, and joy are all part of the camp day — the first two perhaps in greater supply than in some places.
On a recent Monday morning, Klinger is everywhere, comforting children or gently guiding them. “Angel, please don’t do that,” she says to a boy who is kicking a ball down the hallway, where it bounces off lockers (Daybreak asked that campers’ last names not be used to protect their privacy). Mondays can be difficult, she says, because of the transition from the weekend.
Another boy does not want to get on the bus to go to Somerville for an art activity. “All you do is paint,’’ he grumbles.
“Last time, you guys had a great time,” Klinger replies. “First, art, then you’re going to Burger King.” The boy gets on the bus. Klinger explains that the group has “earned their incentive” — Burger King — for displaying safe bus behavior on previous outings.
Angel is 11 and it’s his fourth year at camp. “Everything,” he replies, when asked what he likes best. “Sports, field trips, Burger King, the beach.” If he wasn’t at camp, what would he be doing? He shrugs.
At a recent Family Night, former and current campers, counselors, and parents came for pizza and pasta and to see a camp slide show. In comments afterward, a former camper wrote: “No lie . . . that was the best part of my childhood.” A father said: “It’s such a relief to know that our daughter spent five weeks thriving. The change at night was astonishing. Her stress level was so incredibly reduced; she was her best, wonderful self.”
Brenda Christie has sent her three boys to Daybreak, and three of their cousins have also attended. “I love the camp,” she says. “With my boys, there’s behavioral and emotional stuff, and other camps don’t tend to those kinds of needs or have the qualified people to deal with it.”
Her oldest son attended Daybreak for five years, starting when he was 5. “He was the one who kept things inside, and he came a long way with camp,” says Christie, who is a secretary in the Cambridge Public Schools. That son is now 23 and finishing Army boot camp.
“My middle son has ADHD and has his struggles, and Mia did wonders with him,” Christie says. “She wrote up an evaluation for his school about techniques that help him.”
Her youngest is in his fourth year at Daybreak. “He was very shy and didn’t socialize so well, so it’s been good for him to open up and have more friends,” she says.
Daybreak has also changed some of the staffers’ lives. Lauren Renzi, 20, began as a counselor-in-training five years ago. She describes an autistic child she has come to know. “He started out very inflexible, with no friends. Now, he’s easy to talk to, and he’s making friends. A lot of times you just have to listen, and things will fall into place.”
Five years ago, Renzi figured she’d spend a summer working at camp, but she kept returning. “I think this is where I’m supposed to be,” she says. “This has put me on the path to where I want to be.” She’s studying middle-school education at Lesley University.
Reginald Harris is earning his master’s degree in social work at Boston University. This is his first summer as a counselor at Daybreak, and he’s working with the 7- and 8-year-olds. “We’re helping them develop the skills to resolve conflicts, to have more resilience,” he says.
Khadija is 10 and in her first summer at Daybreak. “If I wasn’t here, I’d be home in bed eating popcorn, watching drama movies and crying,” she says.
One grateful mother of a 6-year-old camper wrote a letter to Daybreak, saying that her son was more “in control” because of camp, more relaxed. “We knew he was in great hands and that everyone appreciated what was good about him, helped him work through what was challenging, and he just felt loved,” she wrote. “The beauty of it was that to Joe it wasn’t a ‘special’ camp because of his behavior issues, it was just a really special camp.”Bella English can be reached at english@