For Kids With Special Needs, Summer Camp Isn't Out of Reach

Photo: Camps that cater to kids with special needs offer typical camp activities with a twist. Camp directors say these kids never feel like outsiders because of their disease or disability.

For millions of kids each summer, camp is a chance to cut loose, meet new friends and hone new skills in the great outdoors.

But for children with special needs, whether it's a physical disability or a developmental disorder, traditional summer camps can pose a whole host of challenges.

"Summer camp is just part of Americana, and if you've got children with particular special needs it's just very difficult for them to readily fit into a mainstream setting," said Sean Nienow, the director of the National Camp Association.

"Camps are set up with a lot of physical activity and are not set up to cater special needs. They're set up to play soccer or have kids go on a mile hike," said Nienow.

One boy at the Adventure Amputee Camp spoke for all the special needs campers when he was asked what he liked best about camp: "No one is staring, asking what's wrong with you or criticizing your faults."

It's because most summer camps aren't set up for kids with disabilities that camps designed specifically for children with special needs have begun to crop up all over the country.

According to Peg Smith, the chief executive officer of the American Camp Association, 17 percent of all accredited summer camps provide programs for kids with special needs, a number that has grown by about 4.4 percent since 2001.

"The world today recognizes that kids need to be kids first, regardless of illnesses or special needs," said Smith. "It only makes sense that the camp experience, if it's truly designed for young people, is accessible to all kids, regardless of their disabilities."

Smith told ABCNews.com that special needs camps run the gamut in terms of the types of disabilities they focus on, and said that she's seen everything from camps for kids with HIV to programs for homeless children.

"I don't see any disability or challenge that is not being represented out there," said Smith.

ABCNews.com took a closer look at a few camps that won't let any disability stand in the way of a child's summertime fun.

CAMP TWITCH AND SHOUT

Children ages 7 to 17 who have been diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome can meet other campers with similar physical and auditory tics at Camp Twitch and Shout.

Located one hour outside Atlanta, the camp's first summer was a big hit, according to Brad Cohen, the camp co-director, who said the camp attracted 50 campers and more than 35 staff members from across the United States.

"So many of our kids have never met another person with Tourette's before coming to camp," said Cohen, who was diagnosed with the disorder when he was 10. "So they see that they're not alone, and that there are other people going through what they are going through."

During the one-week-long overnight camp, Camp Twitch and Shout campers can try their hands at archery, swimming and more, said Cohen. The cost for a week of camp is $250, but Cohen hopes that donations and fundraising will lower the price in the future dramatically, if not eliminate it entirely.

"We want our kids to have positive experiences, make new friends, gain independence and the self-confidence that they need so when they go home and they have that tough day when kids are bullying them, we want them to look back on their camp experience and say, 'I can do it,'" said Cohen.

Cohen said that Tourette's isn't widely discussed at camp because he doesn't want the summer to be an extended "therapy session," but that kids bring up their personal challenges associated with the syndrome on their own.

"Half of our volunteers have Tourette's and so these kids see the adults who are successful in life and good people and learn that they can do that too," said Cohen. "Or they'll see other kids and say, 'Oh wow, I have that tic too. I didn't know you had it!'"

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three out of every 1,000 children between the age of 6 and 17 in the United States have been diagnosed with Tourette syndrome. And it is three times more common in boys than in girls, according to the CDC.

As for the camp's name, Cohen said that it is a tribute to the children who make the camp possible, as well as the sense of humor that is somewhat required for those who live with Tourette's.

When he was naming the camp, Cohen said, "I just thought, 'Well, all our campers are going to twitch and shout, so that's why we're camp Twitch and Shout.'"

THE ADVENTURE AMPUTEE CAMP

For the past 15 years, a campground in Bryson, N.C., has been invaded by approximately 35 eager kids, between the ages of 8 to 17, who aren't willing to let their amputations stop them from having a true summer camp experience.

"These kids are able to see that they're not alone and that there are many, many things that are possible, from physical activities to the interpersonal side," said Missy Wolff-Burke, a licensed physical therapist who founded and the Adventure Amputee Camp.

"Because some of our volunteers also have amputations there is this kind of spontaneous mentoring that happens when a child looks at an adult and says, 'Oh, I can be married too' or 'I can have a job one day,'" said Wolff-Burke.

Besides a $25 application fee, camp is entirely free thanks to outside donations and fundraising.

Wolff-Burke said that many children have had to undergo amputation as a result of disease, birth defects or traumatic injuries, but that all are surprised to see how much they are still capable of doing.

"They do it all: white water rafting, water skiing, high ropes courses, tennis, bicycle riding," she said.

According to Wolff-Burke, children each summer are overheard saying how much of a life-changing experience their time at camp has been.

CAMP I-THONKA-CHI

At Camp I-Thonka-Chi in Meridian, Texas, kids find that no matter how deformed traumatic burns have left parts of their bodies, nobody cares or notices.

"The burn camp is an opportunity to be around other kids who are going around the same things, dealing with fears and questions and body image issues," said Donna Crump , the camp's manager of physical therapy.

"They work out together what to do when someone is staring at them or when someone you're dating sees their scars," says Crump.

Sixty-five campers attend the camp's one week session annually, said Crump, who offers the camp free of charge. To qualify for Camp I-Thonka-Chi, which translates in Choctaw to "a place that makes one strong or fearless, not afraid to face life," campers must be between 6 to 18 years old and have to have spent time in a hospital as a result of a burn injury.

Burn injuries range in severity, said Crump. Some campers have burns that cover only 10 percent of their body while others have had 80 to 90 percent of their body burned as well as amputations.

Special attachments are put on camp activities like climbing walls and ropes courses so that even the most severely burned children can take part in the typical summertime activities.

"So many times they're the only kids in their community who have scars, so camp is an opportunity to be around other kids who know what the pain is like and what the fears are like," said Crump. "It's just huge for them."

CAMP SUNSHINE

For more than two decades, Camp Sunshine in Atlanta, Ga., has given kids with cancer a place to spend some of their summer vacations.

"Children with cancer have the same needs as other children but so many times they're isolated because of their special needs," said Sally Hale, the president of Camp Sunshine.

"Being around children who can understand their challenges and understand what they've gone through gives them a sense of normalcy," she said.

Founded in 1983, Camp Sunshine holds two one-week sessions of overnight summer camp each summer, in addition to other programs that are held for oncology patients held during the off-season.

"We hope by bringing them together they'll feel like everyone else and won't feel alone, and it will give them a renewed sense of confidence to face the challenges ahead," said Hale.

The camp serves more than 400 children each summer and about 850 families throughout the year, and doctors on staff allow children who need continued treatment during the summer months to be able attend camp simultaneously.

"Some get chemotherapy at camp or blood transfusions or blood counts recording," said Hale.

"Some of them look different because they've lost their hair or a limb and at other camps they'd be known as the kid with cancer where as at Camp Sunshine they're just a camper," said Hale.

CAMP HEARTLAND

At Camp Heartland in Minneapolis, Minn., children who are infected with HIV/AIDs or have family members who are can enjoy a Midwestern retreat with peers who face similar challenges.

"There is a tendency to hear summer camp and instantly all you think is s'mores and singing Kumbaya, and while that might happen these summer camp programs for special needs children make a profound transformation for kids," said Neil Willenson, the camp's CEO and founder.

With a total of seven weeks of camp split between sites in Minnesota, New York and California, Willenson said the 550 campers, ranging in age 7 to 15, come to camp free of charge.

According to Willenson, despite attending a camp specifically designed for children with HIV/AIDS, not all of the campers are willing to talk about their diseases.

How much campers talk about their diseases varies, said Willenson.

"We create an environment where they can be open and we do have optional HIV discussion groups," he said. "About 95 percent of campers decide to talk about HIV."

"Some campers have literally stood on the porch and shouted, 'I have AIDS!'" said Willenson."Some kids absolutely don't say a word about it and are just happy being at camp."

In addition to outdoor activities, 24-hour nursing care is available at camp Heartland and social workers are also on staff.

"When people hear summer camp they think water fights but it's really much more than that," said Willenson.

"This is a critical, life changing program disguised as a summer camp," he said.

CAMP CELIAC

What would camp be without ice cream sundaes and popsicles?

Thanks to Camp Celiac in North Scituate, R.I., campers who suffer from the genetic, digestive disorder celiac disease will never have to find out because they are served gluten free ice cream sundaes and poposicles.

"This camp is just a remarkable experience for the kids," said Tanis Collard, the president of the Celiac Support Group for Children, Inc., which runs the camp. "If they go to camp with non-celiac kids they would probably have to eat at a separate table so they didn't have to risk food contamination."

Celiac disease, which affects nearly one percent of the U.S. population, has been proven by recent studies to be five times more prevalent today than it was 50 years ago. Individuals afflicted with celiac disease are unable to eat foods that contain gluten, a protein often found in wheat, barley and other grains without damaging the lining of the small intestine, resulting in the inability to absorb key vitamins and nutrients vital to a healthy body.

Camp tuition is $350 for each camper and includes all of the gluten-free food served during the week-long session. This year Collard expects about 169 campers ages 7 to 16 and staff to attend the August session.

"At Camp Celiac, campers don't feel different and for five days they feel like a normal kid who doesn't have to think about everything they eat," said Collard

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