Being a camp director is probably one of the most fulfilling careers a person can ask for. We work for nine months every year hiring staff, thinking about ways to improve our program, helping children connect with one another, improving our site … and the list goes on. When we realized that COVID-19 might affect this summer, we were actually at a camp conference in New Jersey with 3,000 other camp professionals. At that time, public health professionals and advisors were telling us to hang tight – they explained that most viruses die out in warmer weather and that testing and social distancing would really get the virus under control. We started planning for more cleaning supplies and soap and hand sanitizer. We began meeting with our camp colleagues on bi-weekly Zoom calls to talk about the hows and what-ifs. We had no idea in March that in May, we’d have to make the heart-breaking decision not to run our two camper sessions this summer.
As we end our third month of quarantine and maintaining social distance from our friends and community, we are starting to really feel the effects of being isolated. Our kids are really lonely and are expressing sadness about the loss of their own connections and communities. We are craving experiences outside of the walls of our home – taking hikes and going on neighborhood walks are certainly helpful but they don’t compare to having friends over for dinner, sitting in our favorite restaurants or going to the zoo or art museum with our kids. We often stay up late talking in whispers about when this will end. When will we be able to have our kids play with their friends? When will we feel safe going into busier places?
We believe that Family Camp is a great “next step” for us to start to safely and slowly expand our family “bubbles” (and two camp doctors who wrote this op-ed in the New York Times agree). Social connection with others is so important at this time, especially for young people with Asperger’s and autism. We want to have a chance to allow our campers and their parents and siblings to enjoy the Vermont air and more SPACE! Swimming in a lake seems like a luxury right now. I can’t imagine how I’ll feel when I can let my kids run around camp and not feel so confined. Maybe we’ll keep the screens off for a while! The change of scenery might be enough to help me feel less trapped and anxious. I’ve always thought that just being at Akeela feels sacred. Being in a special place where I can be with other people in a safer way will help me feel connected. And right now, that’s what we all need.
Hello! My name is Rachel, and currently I’m a 23-year-old medical student at the University of Minnesota. The two summers that I’ve spent working at Camp Akeela have been among the best of my life. Even though I first came to Akeela with foundational knowledge of the autism spectrum, I’d never actually gone to a summer camp myself as a kid; as a result, I had no idea what to expect about life at Akeela. It turns out that my summers at Akeela were life-changing in so many meaningful ways, both professionally and personally.
As a medical student, working at Akeela has given me a chance to spend tons of time interacting closely with a unique patient demographic – highly intelligent young people who face some social skills challenges. Being a cabin counselor at Akeela has ensured that I develop skills essential to healthcare, such as communication, problem solving, and empathy. Now when I approach clinical challenges in a medical setting, I find myself thinking back to the complex social situations I experienced and facilitated at Akeela; utilizing the strategies I learned through working with Akeela campers undoubtedly improves my patient-care interactions.
Beyond professional development, I’ve also gained a second home through Akeela. I had never guessed that within just a few weeks, my campers and co-workers would become like family to me. On hard days, even months later, thinking back to memories of Akeela makes life better. I never fail to smile as I relive the moment that one of my teen campers literally jumped with joy because of the free samples at the Ben and Jerry’s factory. Sometimes I wake up in the morning convinced that I’m back in Cabin 2 and surrounded by my group of sleeping campers; starting a day by thinking of Akeela like this always makes me wish that my next summer on Miller Pond could come around faster.
The holiday season is a great time to be together with family and to reflect on the past year. As we do so, we are very grateful for our Akeela community. Nothing brightens a cold winter day more than thinking about all of the warmth, joy, laughter and friendship we feel and see all around us throughout the summer at camp.
We hope that these slideshows remind you of your great memories from camp. Enjoy!
After we move our family home from camp and get our daughters settled back into their school routines, I spend most of the fall talking to parents about camp and the transition home and into a new school year. It’s often a challenging time for our campers and parents too! What I hear most often is this, “I don’t get it. He was so successful at camp and he came home and was happy and texting with camp friends. He even made his own bed for a while without prompting. Now that school’s started, he’s just reverted back to his old ways.” Yes. We know!
So, here’s the question: Did the magic of camp just wear off or did something else happen? I think the answer is BOTH.
There is a lot that we can do at camp that is challenging for you as parents at home to mimic. For example, our campers live with 7 other kids their age and have 4 staff members dedicated to those campers 24/7. The positive peer pressure that comes from living in a community and wanting to be a part of that group is really powerful. When everyone is going to an activity – even one that a camper may “refuse” to do at home – she goes and even participates because that’s what everyone else is doing! When something less preferred is on the table at dinner and the coolest counselor at the table says, “Broccoli? Pass that to me. I LOVE broccoli!”, suddenly, your camper who refuses to eat any veggies at home is willing to at least take one bite. You just can’t mimic that at home and I’ll venture to guess that even the coolest parent doesn’t have the same influence that our staff can! In addition, our campers feel relaxed at Akeela. They don’t have homework or the stress of being in an environment where there are confined to small, noisy, crowded spaces. They are running around, playing on 400 acres of beautiful woods. They have very few demands placed on them (outside of the 24/7 social demands) and they feel like they can be themselves. By living in a community where they are with friends and staff who “get” them, they can enjoy friendships and a sense of pride that they can’t find at school.
And then, yes, something likely “happens” in the fall. The start of school brings with it the reminders of unkind classmates, demanding teachers, or even teachers who aren’t demanding enough. Most importantly, it brings a world of people who don’t really get it. That’s exhausting and it’s upsetting for a lot of our campers. At the end of 2nd session, a lot of our campers talk to us about how nervous they are to leave. They wish that camp was year-round so they didn’t have to deal with school. Don’t get me wrong, most of our campers are brilliant and love to learn but school can sometimes take the joy out of that.
So – what can you do at home?
You can make sure that you’re normalizing all of these feelings for your child.
You can remind them that keeping in touch with camp friends, although time-consuming, is really energizing and healthy. These are the people who “get” you after all! They will need guidance with this – they may not know where to start when it comes to having a relationship with someone they don’t see in school. Help them compose an email, practice how to call someone to invite them over, teach them how to Skype or Facetime (and then stay close by the first few times to make sure they don’t need help to keep the conversation going).
You can set some expectations – just like at camp! You can tell your child that they are responsible for certain things around the house like: making their own bed, doing their own laundry (or at least folding it and putting it away – neatly!). Please remind your child that she was able to do all of that at camp and there’s no reason not to do it at home as well. This will give your child a sense of pride and the knowledge that you believe they are capable. For our camper who struggle with Executive Functioning, a checklist is very helpful.
Encourage your child to help prepare a meal once a week. This often helps with trying new foods. Kids are more apt to TRY things they’ve put an effort into making! (It works at camp in our cooking classes!)
Happy holidays from your friends at Camp Akeela! We’re thinking of all our camp friends during this season, and can’t wait to be back at camp with you in 2019. Below you will find slide shows from Vermont’s first and second sessions. We hope you’ll watch them and that they’ll help remind you of all the magical times we spent together last summer. Wishing everyone a safe and happy rest of the holiday season!
Social Skills Camp Boston: Staying connected to your camper!
One of the most important outcomes of a summer session at Camp Akeela is that our campers find “their people”. They make their closest and most meaningful relationships at camp. We often hear from parents that they are disappointed that those relationships don’t continue once campers return home. We truly believe that this is not due to a lack of desire but because our campers often find themselves in a mindset of “out of sight, out of mind”. It takes work to keep in touch with people and our campers sometimes prefer the easier route. They will happily hang out with friends if someone puts them in a situation where that can happen, but they won’t go out of their way to plan a get together or even to send an email.
How can you help?
Help your camper remember WHY friends at camp were so special and remind them of why it’s worth the effort to continue those relationships: Encourage your camper to talk about his/her friends from this summer. Ask them to share stories with you about fun things they did together. What did he/she like about those friends? What was so special about them.
Look at a calendar with your camper. Are there dates/times when you might be free to host a gathering of a friend or two? If friends live far away, are there dates/times when you can help coordinate a skype or Facetime “meeting”?
Help your camper draft an email to a few friends to get a conversation going and encourage them to include a few questions so that their friends have a reason to reply and a conversation starter!
Invite Akeela friends to important events including birthday celebrations! We have so many pictures sent to us of friends who’ve traveled far and wide to be at a birthday party, bar-mitzvah or prom! (They are our favorites!)
As parents, get to know your child’s camp friend’s parents as well! Some wonderful family friendships have been formed over the years. It’s wonderful to have family gatherings and is a great way to get the kids together without too much social pressure!
Keep trying. If your child doesn’t seem interested at first in connecting with camp friends, don’t give up! Perhaps, in a month or even two, he/she will be ready to make the effort to connect. Be patient – this is not easy for anyone and is especially challenging for our campers! We promise it’s worth the effort!
Besides being a camp director, I also have my doctorate in Clinical Psychology. During my studies in NY, I became interested in in the study of sleep and later became a Certified Sleep Consultant. Helping families get the rest they need is extremely fulfilling and so important. As I began to work more and more with children with special needs – mostly those with Aspergers, ASD, ADD and ADHD, I learned that these kids have a greater incidence of insomnia. Every summer at camp, I’m reminded of HOW MUCH SLEEP our campers need. I tell my sleep colleagues that we’re likely the only residential summer camp in New England (or in the country!) that is quiet by 10:15pm!
When I teach other sleep consultants about working with “quirky kids”, I am very clear that although they seem to have a greater sleep need, they still benefit from all of the tools we use when we work with our other clients. Most importantly, all of us (including parents) need to have a very consistent sleep routine and we need to get to bed early enough to allow our bodies to get the sleep we need. We should wake up and rise at the same times every day – regardless of weekends! (This allows our natural body clocks, to be well established and in tune with the natural light cycles of our seasons.)
Here are some important tips for parents:
Many of our campers have a great deal of Anxiety and need extra time to settle down – make sure that’s built into their schedule!
Anxious kids benefit from help in “turning off” their busy minds – in order to help them do this, I love using guided meditations. The free app, Insight Timer, is wonderful and allows you to search for kid-friendly bedtime meditations for as short or as long as you’d like. (Good luck staying awake if you’re listening with your child!)
Medications prescribed for ADHD and some other meds can interfere with the TIMING of sleep. It is very important to discuss sleep troubles with the prescribing physician to see if the time of administration or dosage needs to be adjusted later in the day to allow for an early enough bedtime.
Our campers tend to be quite sedentary during the school year. Reading books and playing video games does not allow for children to get the exercise they need to expel all of their energy. Get them moving! Even just a walk around the block, a period of bouncing on a yoga ball, or some jumping jacks at least an hour before bed (best if it’s done throughout the day if possible).
Get outside! Natural light really has an impact on our sleep cycles. When possible – even if you have to bundle up or grab an umbrella – get some natural light.
Finally, turn off the screens. By now, most people know that blue light and sleep don’t mix. Don’t use devices for self-soothing at bedtime. Read a “real” book, listen to soft music or a podcast, or a meditation! Yoga Nidra is wonderful for children who need something more physical to help relax but please – don’t turn on your devices!
This jam-packed newsletter includes a lot of important information for camp parents, introductions to our amazing team of program heads, details on communication from camp, and much more. Here’s a quick look at one article, What To Expect On The First Day of Camp.
Dear Akeela Camper,
Summer is almost here and we hope you are excited about camp, even if you’re also feeling a little nervous about it. Many kids go away for part of the summer. Some visit family, some go on teen travel or community service programs, and some go to sleep-away camps. Almost everybody worries about how they will like a place that’s new to them. It’s OK to feel that way and we’re here to help make your transition to camp as easy and smooth as possible. We think that one way to do that is to help you know what to expect…
If you’re taking one of the camp buses to camp, you and your parents will meet some of our counselors at the bus pick-up location. They will be there to welcome you and to introduce you to other campers. They will help you find a seat on the bus with a new friend and will be there to answer any questions you might have. The travel time from NY is approximately 5 hours and the time from Boston is approximately 2.5 hours. You will bring lunch on the bus and there are bathrooms on both buses!
Those of you flying to Boston on Opening Day will be met at the airport by Akeela staff members. They will be there to greet you and to introduce you to other campers who have also flown in! You and your new friends will be driven by our staff in a camp van directly to camp. It will take approximately 2.5 hours to get to Akeela. If your parents are driving you to camp, you will be dropped off at 2:00. Your counselors will be there to meet you at your car and help you carry any last-minute items you have brought with you that day. You, your parents, and counselors will go to your cabin, where you’ll see all of your belongings have been unpacked and organized for you so you can easily find your bed. You’ll then say goodbye to your family and begin your camp adventure!
Regardless of how you get to camp, here’s what you can expect to happen the rest of that first day:
You will have a chance to see what camp looks like and enjoy some planned activities with your bunkmates. You might take a tour, play some games, or jump on the jumping pillow.
You’ll also meet our nurses so that they can give you a quick “health check” to make sure you’re healthy!
Our great Chef, Catarina, will give you a small preview of her culinary expertise and provide a delicious snack for you and your new friends to enjoy.
There will be some time after everyone arrives for each bunk to start spending some time together before we meet for dinner. This is a great time to get to know your bunkmates and counselors, and talk about “bunk expectations,” so you know what to expect from each other.
We will all have dinner and Evening Meeting together as a community. You’ll eat dinner with your cabin, just like you will for all your meals at camp! Evening Meeting will be at the amphitheatre and you’ll get to hear from Eric and Debbie, and have a chance to make announcements about the new friends you’ve already made!
Then it will be time for our opening campfire and evening snack. We’ll sing songs and do skits as a community by the fire. It’s one of our favorite parts of camp!
Before bedtime, you will preview the next day’s schedule and then Debbie or Eric and your Head Counselor will stop by to say good night. Before you know it, your first day will be over and we will all be getting ready for bed!
Many campers worry that they might be sad or homesick on the first night of camp. That is very normal. All of your counselors will be right in your bunk with you to help you. In addition to talking to them, you might want to look at photos from home, write a letter to your family or read a book. We know that after a short time, you will be having such a great time at Akeela, it will feel like your second home.
We can’t wait to see you at camp. Many of you will be joining us for our Open House on June 17th. (RSVP HERE) If you’re not able to attend Open House, you’ll be able to see photos of the event on the camp website. We’re so excited for an amazing summer at Camp Akeela. See you soon!