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A Summer of Life-Changing Moments at Special Camp for Special Kids

14 November 2012 admin 2,074 views No Comment Email This Post Email This Post Print This Post Print This Post

Completing its 21st year, Special Camp for Special Kids summer program was led by a record 215 counselors (100 new, 115 returning) and 215 campers (185 returning, 30 new).

There are many reasons Special Camp for Special Kids will touch not only your heart, but your soul. From the instant you participate, whether as a counselor, a camper, a parent or a volunteer, you feel the excitement of the campers along with their eagerness to have a good time. You can’t help but want to be a part of it and share in the experience. The program spans over four weeks in the summer and each week brings a new set of campers and counselors. During the four weeks, a different field trip is planned every day where campers, along with their counselors, visit places such as Knott’s Berry Farm, the bowling lanes, a local beach or the San Diego Zoo. From the minute the bus ride begins, the excitement is present and palpable with singing and cheerful chants as the campers and counselors make their way to that day’s scheduled field trip.

Everyone involved plays an important role in ensuring the campers have a great time and fulfill the program’s mission of providing life-changing social and recreational opportunities through one-to-one relationships. Over the next five years, Special Camp for Special Kids expects to maintain its momentum and understand more completely the depth and breadth of the experiences they are providing to their participants.

According to the program’s Director Lindsay Eres, “Special Camp exists to provide an encouraging, loving and fun environment for the disabled community through the program’s core principles of compassion, service, opportunity and love.”

One-third of the program’s counselors are St. Margaret’s Episcopal School students or alumni and the rest come from local high schools. The bond between counselors and campers is instant due in large part to the long hours the staff spends matching the one-to-one relationship. Prospective counselors are required to submit applications along with letters of recommendation and interviews. If selected, the counselors attend an all-day counselor training seminar and complete a counselor questionnaire. Through this process, Special Camp staff pair campers and counselors based on their interests and personality; the camper’s needs and behaviors are always taken into consideration. This extensive process allows staff to anticipate how the counselor will respond to their assigned camper.

Special Camp strives to educate future generations and eliminate the stigma associated with children with disabilities. Counselor Emily Elkins, a recent graduate of Aliso Niguel High School who is attending Regis University in Denver this fall first heard of Special Camp for Special Kids from friends who had been counselors for years. She decided to participate for the first time this past summer in preparation for majoring in early childhood development at Regis. She was very nervous on her first day, but the minute she met camper Rodrigo (Ro) Ramos, she knew it would all be fine. She has realized there is so much to learn from children with disabilities and added, “The kids are normal and stereotypes about kids with special needs are so untrue; we are all the same, they just have a different set of challenges.” She said she hardly even notices that Ro has Down syndrome and enjoys the fact that he describes her as “his homie.”

Parents also play a key part in the program. Some travel as far as Bakersfield and Oceanside because of the value this program brings to their children. Joseph Packi has been participating in the program for almost 10 years. His mother continues to bring him to the program because she feels it has helped him in his developmental growth and because the program has grown to be a part of their family.

Special Camp for Special Kids first began in 1992 as an effort by former St. Margaret’s Episcopal School Chaplain Mike Wallens to bring together parents of children with disabilities and experts in special education. The program kicked off its first year with 15 campers and 20 counselors. There is a scarcity of summer camp programs for children with disabilities in South Orange County and it is an issue that Special Camp for Special Kids is attempting to address through its mission and vision. Another major concern for the program is the medical costs that burden many families of children with disabilities; some families struggle to afford the expense of special summer programs or day care. In addition, the statewide cutbacks on scholarships for children with special needs have created even more obstacles for parents. Special Camp for Special Kids is hosted by St. Margaret’s Episcopal School, but operates independently of the school’s operating budget.

The program has left a lasting impression on the community of San Juan Capistrano and continues to be the only program of its kind in the entire country. For more information about the program or to consider making a donation, please contact Special Camp for Special Kids Director Lindsay Eres at 949.661-0108, ext. 699 or lindsay.eres@smes.org.

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