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A Day in the Life of Three Special Needs Camps


Communications Coordinator / Moderator

Nov 7, 2006, 1:22 PM

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Clang, clang, clang, rings the wake-up bell at 7:45am to begin another day at Camp Kirk. Situated in a woodland area in Kirkfield, Ontario, 100 miles north of Toronto, Canada, the camp for ADD and ADHD children is the summer home of 6 cabin groups with sessions that last for seven to 10 days. Daily structure starts with the wake-up bell and is maintained throughout by the close supervision of two counselors for every six campers.

After breakfast, is a special time when Director Henri Audet, a former professional musician, invokes a ceremony he calls ‘Reflection.’ Without identifying a camper, or a cabin, he talks about events and situations affecting the camp. Then, the campers put their heads down on the dining hall table and he plays a reflective song.

“You can hear a pin drop,” says Audet. “It starts the day on an even keel for all 36 campers. Everybody begins at the same level.”

The exuberant Audet has been the director of Camp Kirk since its inception in 1993. Born and raised in Quebec City, the 59-year-old has worked with canoe trip specialists in Ontario and the Tim Horton Children’s Foundation.

Close supervision and a tight counselor to camper ratio insure Camp Kirk campers are safe and learning new communication skills.

If a child experiences a problem during the day, they can retreat with a counselor to the camp’s gardens. Gardening allows LD children to go from a difficult activity to a relaxed environment, watering the earth or pulling up weeds.

“Kids love that kind of stuff,” says Audet. “It gives them a sense of being useful and it’s a positive replacement for punishment.”

Evening activities can involve the entire camp, or a format Audet calls ‘clubs’ which are organized by the children themselves – such as a Lego club, a baking or a fishing club.

But children are expected to commit to the club that they choose. A child may sign up for a club only to realize that a friend is in a different one. But at Camp Kirk, they must honor their decisions and commitments.

“Next time, they’ll ask their friend first,” Audet says laughing. “Those are hard lessons to learn.

Bed time, according to Audet, is an anchor for the kids. Each child is given the opportunity to say two things: “One thing that they loved most about the day, and one thing that they look forward to tomorrow.”

Running throughout each day is the camp’s focus of cause and effect in each child’s behavior, a concept Audet maintains many LD kids have trouble understanding.

Camp Kirk’s philosophy is to encourage their children to take risks in a structured setting, like high ropes courses, rock climbing wall, martial arts, and traditional activities like swimming, arts and craft, drama, and others. Once they can accomplish success through small things, says Audet, they’ll risk activities at school, like putting up their hand in class, or telling their teachers about their ideas.

“Once a child has self-esteem,” says Audet, “they can begin to get through the academics.” Camp Kirk’s director knows this first-hand — “I have ADD,” he says. “Without music and camp I wouldn’t be giving this interview today.”

In the future, Audet is planning for an expansion of the program to include 13 to 18 year olds, made up primarily of long wilderness canoe trips, an expansion of the gardening program, and the addition of small farm animals.

He believes that long canoe trips promote the use of many senses and comprises the ultimate in team learning.

“I envision a small group of six kids living at a base camp for a few days, and then sending them out in the bush for three weeks.”

He adds: “It would be a full-blown, wildlife adventure.”

Breakfast has not been served, but two Talisman Program counselors have called their cabin ‘into group’ countless times.

The problem — a very important chore has been neglected by a stubborn camper. The rules of the group demand that the cabin will be called together until the problematic chore is accomplished.

“Nobody likes cleaning the toilet,” explains Talisman Director, Linda Tatsapaugh, “but when it’s somebody’s turn, that person either does it, or the group isn’t moving.”

In this scenario, the non-helper can choose to come into the group or sit out. “That person only returns when ready to deal with the situation,” she says. A non-moving group will be late for breakfast, and will eat outside the dining room because of disrespect to the kitchen staff.

The Talisman philosophy is that youth with Learning Disorders will better understand how to act appropriately within a firm group dynamic. As Tatsapaugh explains — if seven out of eight children respect the rules and expectations, the eighth will come around. “It may take time to help that child save face,” she says, “but eventually everyone wants to be part of the group. It’s a natural motivation.”

Tatsapaugh, 39, was born and raised in Greensboro, NC, and graduated with an MS in Child and Youth Care Administration from Nova Southeastern University in Florida. During her first ten years at Talisman in Western North Carolina she worked under the guidance of camp founder, Catherine Jennings, learning that a lot of what is effective with LD kids — consistency, firmness, and structure — initially felt uncomfortable for her.

“I wanted to be buddies with the kids and have fun,” she says, “but that doesn’t turn out to be as valuable.”

The group method is also employed in Talisman’s celebrated nature trips. Campers are expected to work together during hikes on the Appalachian Trail, and encouraged to see the benefits of working with nature.

Talisman, founded 25 years ago, believes in engaging children in ‘multi-sensory teaching’. Tatsapaugh explains: “We are connecting a number of their senses at once.” Also, she says, “they’re looking at what they are doing, putting their hands on a rock, their feet on the ground, or a paddle in the water. They perceive with many senses and they also learn about communication and teamwork. A better memory is created around respect and community.”

This summer, Talisman will be showcasing a new program. Explorers is the brainstorm of Tatsapaugh, and Program Manager of Base Camp, Aaron McGinley.
They have built on the skills of 18th and 19th Century pioneers and the indigenous Cherokee to create a special one-week hike for young teenagers. The campers use modern hiking gear but participate in starting fires, making cordage, and carrying water.

“It shows independence,” says Tatsapaugh. “If Learning Disabled children can figure out how to do all these things in the woods, they can be more confident about their home lives.”

On a sunny summer morning in Atlanta, the campers and staff from Camp Caglewood swing by local landmark, The Varsity Restaurant, before heading off to a Braves game. The special needs, and developmentally disabled children and adults, enjoy the fun fast-food atmosphere where dozens of order takers briskly serve customers.

Onwards, to Turner Field to catch an afternoon of professional baseball. At the stadium, campers do their own shopping and make requests at concession stands, under the controlled supervision of Caglewood staff.

“We help them feel more independent,” says Caglewood director, Paul Freeman. “When they grow older,” he continues, “they’ll be more prepared to live on their own without 24 hour care.”

Caglewood provides day and weekend camping opportunities for children and adults with disabilities – LD, autism, downs syndrome, and cerebral palsy. The camp was founded in 2001 by Paul and his wife, Jessica, both 27-years-old, who met while working with special needs children.

Caglewood is a volunteer camp-in-motion without a residential setting, and depends on donations and fundraising. No one draws a salary. Paul works full-time in sales and IT, with Jessica taking time off to tend to Elijah, their first child.

Initially, the Freemans made a conscious decision to be an outfit in-motion. They saw the need to provide help to parents and caregivers who needed ‘time-out’ from stressful lives with disabled children.

“Children with severe disabilities,” says Paul, “often require the parents and caregivers to watch them 24 hours a day.” He sees one of the roles of his camp is to help out working parents; the strain of full-time jobs is doubled while raising a disabled child.

“Parents asked my wife and me many times to come up with a weekend program,” says Paul. “Because that’s when they really need a lot of help. So that’s what we really wanted to go after.”

Weekend trips start in the same way as day outings. The vans pick up a group of children and adults with disabilities and head off to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Northern Georgia.

They camp out in a state park; hiking, canoeing, or in art therapy. Jessica Freeman designed the art therapy program to help campers express their thoughts and feelings though art, and to assist them in developing fine motor skills like writing and using a telephone.

The hiking is in a very lush landscape covered with green woodland. They observe an abundance of lakes, waterfalls, and other eco-systems. “It’s a challenge,” says Paul, “but the reward is wonderful.”

A deep, non-denominational Christian faith motivates the Freemans. Their dreams are also deep.

“We want to have a camp with a full range of children and adults who can come,” says Paul. He continues — “Children with disabilities, mainstream children, LD children, and children with terminal illnesses. We want all of these different populations to be integrated so that they can learn from each other — to help build a better society.”

The three special needs camps above, and may other special needs camps, can be found online at

Stephen Winbaum is the Communications Coordinator of


(This post was edited by ACACamps on Nov 9, 2006, 11:18 AM)


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