For children with cognitive or physical challenges, a little one-on-one support can mean the difference between having an okay time or a great time at summer camp.
Just ask April MacQueen, the inclusion counsellor for Dal’s Athletics and Recreation camps this summer. She received a particularly glowing review from one camper with autism she helped out last month.
“He told me and his mom on the last day he checked out, ‘This was the best time ever,’” says MacQueen, a former junior high school teacher and current Therapeutic Recreation student at Dal.
Although the child attended one of the Dal sports camps last summer, she says he told her he wasn’t that enthusiastic about it. This year was a different story.
“He even asked me to be his babysitter afterwards,” says MacQueen, chuckling.
Meeting the needs of the community
Dal’s 40 or so sports and recreation camps attract anywhere between 1,800 and 2,000 children and youth each summer, ranging in age between 5 and 17 years old. This summer marks the first time an inclusion counsellor has been available to provide one-on-one support to those campers who need it.
Some children require help integrating socially with their peers, says MacQueen, while others are given assistance in figuring out appropriate behaviour during different activities or with transitions between activities or spaces.
MacQueen was brought on board in June and spent the month preparing plans for different scenarios. Although all of the campers in need of support this summer so far have had cognitive, not physical, challenges, she says she is prepared for both possibilities. For example, there are smaller sport balls for kids with motor-skill issues and larger equipment for those who have problems with gripping, if needed.
In past years, camp organizers had to allocate additional staff to help out if there were children or youth needing extra support during activities, doing their best to train staff to handle those situations.
But Andrew Harding, campus recreation coordinator for Dalhousie Athletics and Recreational Services, says with more kids being identified with certain cognitive challenges each year — ranging from attention-deficit disorder and oppositional defiant disorder to autism — it was time to bring in a dedicated staffer.
“It’s become more and more of a need from what we’ve seen over the past couple of years, and it’s something that we really hope to continue well into the future,” he says.
Allowing everyone to participate
Affording physically challenged children an equal opportunity to participate was also important in the decision, he says — as was having someone around who could give a helping hand to other counsellors as needed. While most parents of children with cognitive or behavioural deficits identify those before camp begins, there have been some exceptions. If MacQueen is tied up working with another child, she will step away for a few moments to assist other counsellors and provide them with the tools they might need.
“Having access to more expertise and someone who is dedicated to training our staff and also working one-on-one with kids where it is needed has been a great addition,” says Harding, noting that feedback from parents has been positive.
MacQueen’s dedication to helping children with special needs stretches back to her own childhood. In Grade 5, together with some of her fellow Girl Guides, she volunteered in the Learning Centre at her elementary school to assist youth with cognitive and physical challenges, including spina bifida (a birth defect impacting the spine that can cause paralysis of the lower limbs and mental challenges). MacQueen found it so rewarding she decided to stay on and volunteer once a week even after she got her Girl Guide badge.
Later, MacQueen worked for nine summers at a camp in Pennsylvania for children with learning, behavioural and social disorders. It was there that she learned many of the practical skills on how to adapt to different situations and activities, training that she brought into her teaching career and now in therapeutic recreation.
“Ultimately, when I am done my degree I’d like to work with a population of kids and youth with special needs,” she says. “I’ve always had that passion.”
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