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!
Why Camp is still Important for High School Students
I recently had a conversation with a long-time Camp Akeela parent. She was wondering whether or not camp was still an appropriate summer option for her 10th grader. After many years at Akeela, she wondered if it was time to move on. So to encourage her son to get a job or to take summer classes. She is certainly not alone in asking these questions. As parents, many of us constantly worry if we’re making the right choices for our children. Are we pushing them enough? Are we pushing too hard? And how much should we push during the summer? Many parents wonder if their kids need some down time. And others worry that too much unstructured time leads to feeling depressed or lonely or even more anxious.
The transition phase for important life skill
As camp directors, it’s probably obvious that we believe that for most kids, camp is an amazing opportunity for our older teens. For our long-time campers, one final summer as “the oldest”, is like a graduation year. They benefit from feeling like they are the leaders in the community. That they have knowledge and wisdom about life that they can share with their younger peers. It also enables them to learn how to transition away from childhood. So many of our oldest campers struggle with saying goodbye. Either avoiding it all-together or becoming so emotional that it overwhelms other people. Having a final summer at camp with peers who are going through the same transition is an opportunity to teach them. This very important life skill which will continue to come up as they begin new experiences and then have to leave them (college, jobs, relationships…etc.).
Camp Akeela Experience
We also believe that there is an important arc to the Akeela experience. One where campers build upon skills they’ve developed in other years at Akeela. In their oldest years at camp, our teens get more choice in their activity. More freedom to be in camp with less direct (obvious) supervision and opportunities to lead activities. And also to be role-models for younger campers.
After 9th and 10th grades, our campers participate in our “Teen Time” program where they can choose to participate in writing and performing Camp News. Or STEM projects (robotics and building an escape room) and community leadership (planning and running a camp activity and working closely with a younger bunk of campers). In addition, our oldest teens benefit from guided conversations around topics that are particularly salient to that age group such as romantic relationships, appropriate use of social media and technology and wellness (mental health, hygiene, sleep and nutrition).
Finally, camp is fun. While of course we believe there is value to learning how important it is to work hard and to earn money. We also think that finding opportunities for our campers to really connect with peers in a meaningful way. To feel totally accepted and to be a part of a community where they are valued is just not something that can be undervalued. As our campers prepare for life beyond high school, we want them to head in to that next phase of their lives. On feeling secure in who they are. We believe camp allows them to do that.
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!
The fall is always a bitter-sweet time for us as camp directors. On the one hand, there is a sense of relief to be settled back into our lives at home. And having our own daughters situated with new teachers at school and to be able to plan and cook our own meals! On the other hand, there’s always a sadness and loneliness that we feel as well. We work with an amazing team at camp and love sharing ideas with them. Also we love being a part of a larger community – of walking into breakfast and seeing 200 smiling faces, having fun conversations with campers all day. And also hearing about all of their successes and helping them through struggles.
We know that our family’s experience of post-camp adjustment. This is one your camper may also have felt or still be feeling. It’s not easy to come home from camp after such an intense (and exhausting) experience. Then jump right back into home-life. And even for campers who were well established back at home. Starting a new school year can bring up a whole new set of worries around academic work, new teachers, new routines and new peers.
Please let us know if there’s anything we might be able to do to help. For camper adapt to these many changes. We always find that the more routinized our campers days are. The more we can prepare and preview with our campers, the less anxious they become. We would love to see you help your child stay connected with his/her camp friends. You will likely have to give a big “push” to make this happen. It includes sitting down to help him/her write an email or send a text.
Time has gone by so quickly
Every summer, there are a few moments that stick with me and make me feel proud or cause me to laugh out loud (or both)! This year is no different and as I sit at my desk now, I’m reminded of two of those moments. One was when I said goodbye to some of our 11th grade campers who will be moving on to Beyond Akeela next summer. A few of them have been campers for over 5 summers, which means that Eric and I have watched them grow up. They are now tall, confident, kind, bright young men and women.
As I hugged them goodbye and told them how proud I was to know them. I was struck with how lucky I feel to be able to witness so much growth over 3 and a half weeks every summer. The other moment this summer was watching the talent show. And seeing how much pride and joy our campers experience not only when they are performing on stage. But when they are in the audience, cheering for their friends. These are the types of memories that I hold on to when we’re away from Miller Pond!