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Families

Finding a summer camp that fits your child’s needs

Whether your kid has allergies, autism, diabetes, or any other issue, they can still have a fun, safe adventure.

Greg Mably

As a former sleep-away camper herself, Rockland mother of two Pruett Cunningham knows the benefits of summer camp for her children: enjoying the great outdoors, sampling new activities, and sparking lifelong friendships that camps are known for creating. Cunningham sent her then 15-year-old daughter off on a plane one summer to attend a Russian language camp in Minnesota, sight unseen, in what turned out to be a positive experience.

But for her 13-year-old son, it’s trickier. He has type 1 diabetes in addition to multiple behavioral diagnoses, including ADD and depressive anxiety. Last summer, she signed him up for the Barton Center for Diabetes Education’s day program, in North Oxford, dedicated to kids with type 1 diabetes. But a few weeks before camp, his behavioral issues erupted, causing Cunningham to have second thoughts and unenroll him at the last minute. “No matter how reassuring they were,” she explains, “I was not convinced that they were trained for his behavioral issues.”

Cunningham’s concerns are hardly unique. For the growing number of parents whose child falls slightly outside the norm — whether that means suffering from allergies, attention-deficit disorder, autism, anxiety, or plain old bed-wetting — it’s hard not to worry whether camp can provide a safe and comfortable environment. Just as schools have had to adapt policies to handle the growing number of students with special medical or behavioral concerns, camps have had to find ways to serve them when school is out.

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“Kids are becoming more medically complex,” says Dr. Michael Pistiner, a pediatric allergist at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates and cofounder of allergyhome.org. “Directors of camps have been recognizing that care for campers with chronic medical conditions is needed and are becoming more aware of the strategies that need to be implemented for kids to be well cared for.”

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As summer enrollment ramps up, parents facing that decision first need to determine if their child is better off at a place that offers specialized services or whether a mainstream camp (even perhaps the one the parent attended as a child) will be able to meet those needs. Some camps, like the Barton Center, cater to kids with a particular illness or disability. The majority of the Barton staff have diabetes themselves, serving as role models who understand life with the chronic disease. Aside from this expertise assuaging parents’ concerns, there is also an added benefit. “We are giving these kids at camp a sense of normalcy,” says resident camp director Mark Bissell. “To have someone who knows how it feels — it’s pretty powerful for these kids to leave with friends for life.”

Similarly, Camp Akeela in Vermont, founded in 2008, runs a coed overnight program for campers diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome or nonverbal learning disabilities. Instead of the typical noisy mess hall and crowded bunks, Akeela features higher counselor-to-camper ratios, a dining hall where the decibels are dialed down, and a greater emphasis on predictability and routines — no surprise breakouts of Color Wars there. “Being in a place where people understand them changes their self-perception,” cofounder Debbie Sasson says. “Parents have told us that camp represents the first time their child has had a true friendship.”

Barton Center
Campers relaxing in their bunk at the Barton Center for Diabetes Education in North Oxford.

But other parents may prefer to enroll their children in a more general summer camp with the comfort of an additional built-in level of support, such as Camp Ramah in New England, a Jewish camp in Palmer whose long-running Tikvah program includes extra staff and help for campers with disabilities.

Similarly, Camp Howe in Goshen is a 4-H-affiliated program that has been serving all types of campers for decades via its Echo Program. “We work closely with parents to figure out whether and how to make this work, and sometimes we have to be creative,” says camp director Terrie Campbell. She points as an example to the time when a child with an almond allergy enrolled and she made the entire camp almond-free — not only in the cafeteria but also ensuring that no one inadvertently brought almond-scented shampoo, lotion, or soap into camp.

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“Everyone comes in expecting that there will be kids here with differences, and it’s important to prepare everyone for that, but the payoff is that camp becomes the ideal community where kids are helping other kids and drawing inspiration from them,” Campbell says. Camps are not always going to be able to stretch themselves to accommodate everyone’s needs, but in her decade-plus at Camp Howe, Campbell can recall no child whose physical limitations were so great that they could not make it work, even a mute and deaf child with cerebral palsy who came to camp with an aide.

The Barton Center
Barton Center campers study nutrition values among other activities.

The best way to evaluate whether a camp can handle your concerns is to talk to the director and provide specifics on the evaluation form — the series of detailed questions that probes camper likes and dislikes, as well as personality traits and social skills. “Nobody is saying that every camp has to be set up to serve every need,” says Karin Lifter, a professor in the department of counseling and applied educational psychology at Northeastern University. “But it does mean parents have to figure out which kind of camp they are interested in and whether that camp can meet their needs.”

The more detail provided, the better the camp is able to use that information to set up a successful summer for the child, directors say. While schools have firm guidelines and policies established by the state to deal with these issues, camps are not regulated in the same way, so they are dependent on parents to divulge the information they need. But more than ever, parents seem to be willing to do so.

“Fifteen years ago, parents might have crossed their fingers and hoped it would go well, maybe that their kid could get a fresh start over the summer in a new environment,” says Nat Saltonstall, director at Beaver Summer Camp in Chestnut Hill and a former president of the American Camp Association New England. “Now I don’t see that anymore. I see parents giving more information from the start and partnering with us to come up with concrete plans for their children.”

This rings true for Pruett Cunningham. “I try to be upfront about everything,” she says. Although she ended up pulling the plug last time around, she is hopeful her son will be in a better position to attend camp this summer. “He’s a year older and his impulse control is getting better,” she says. “He has a lot of strengths, and I really want him to have some successes.”

Camp Akeela
Campers and counselors enjoy puddle jumping at Camp Akeela in Vermont.

Camp Akeela
Campers dressed in costume at Camp Akeela, which was founded in 2008 as a coed overnight program for campers diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome or nonverbal learning disabilities.

PLANNING TIPS FOR PARENTS FOR A WORRY-FREE SUMMER

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1. Thoroughly research your camp to make sure it has experience accommodating your child’s issue(s) and that the necessary trained professional staff will be available to your camper at all times.

2. Be honest and forthcoming with the camp about your child’s medical condition, beginning with the initial application process. Camps cannot plan for situations that they are not aware of in advance, and surprises will be to the child’s detriment.

3. Try to meet personally with the camp’s director and/or medical staff to provide all relevant information and to ensure that an appropriate treatment plan is in place before camp starts.

4. All medical prescriptions should be current and filled prior to camp and in accordance with the camp’s drug distribution system.

5. Review emergency policies and procedures with camp leaders to ensure that you are comfortable and confident that any situation can be handled appropriately.

Sara Mason Ader is a freelance writer based in Hingham and a mother of three summer campers. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.