Hi! I’m Taylor Whitchurch, a student teacher from the UK! The 2019 season was my 4th summer at Akeela, where I’ve been a swimming specialist, counselor and aquatics director. I’ve worked on both the Vermont and Wisconsin camps.
Away from camp I have recently completed my degree in Medical Sciences, and worked as a care support worker for adults with complex needs. I have a special interest in working with the ASD population, and have volunteered on a number of projects both at university and in my local community.
Before all of this came my Akeela experience. In 2015, my first summer, at the age of 19, I flew three and a half thousand miles away from my home and family to Boston. Summer camp is not a thing that we do in the UK, and I came with a number of preconceptions about what my experience would be. Long days by the pool, bare cabins and a relaxed atmosphere. Akeela was all of this. But it was also so much more. The community that we build at Akeela is something special. Every person feels supported, not only the campers but the councillors as well. The opportunities that I have been given at Akeela have allowed me to qualify as a lifeguard and develop as an educator and a leader within the community. It’s also allowed me to develop as a person. I am more empathetic towards those who think in a different way than I do, and have developed an appreciation of the amazing diversity that our campers display.
I tell people away from camp that my time at Akeela has been one of the defining experiences of my life. And it truly has. From discovering my future career path, networking with other professionals in the field and having just about the best time it’s possible to have, Akeela really has it all.
As someone whose passion is working with children with different abilities and having done so since high school, I knew that I wanted to continue working with these populations throughout my summer. I expected the typical summer camp experience — making friends, working with kids and maybe learning something about myself along the way. What I got from Akeela, however, was all of that and SO much more.
I’ve never been a part of such an inclusive, warm and welcoming community. Each day I felt inspired, supported and loved, not only by Debbie and Eric, but also my peers that I worked alongside for two months. I spent this summer learning from the most quirky, fun and free-spirited campers on the planet, while laughing harder, trusting deeper and allowing myself to be who I truly am as a person – someone I’ve been holding back on being for a very long time. I have Akeela to thank for every moment of that, so when I think back on all the moments from this past summer, I can’t help but get a bit emotional. While I was helping our campers, Akeela was helping me.
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.
You can also find this note from Debbie and Eric in the newsletter:
Greetings from wintery(ish) Philadelphia! Is it possible that it’s already February? This is the time of year that we start counting down the days until we’ll be back together in Vermont. We have been extremely busy meeting new Akeela families and welcoming them into our camp family. Meeting all of them leaves us feeling so lucky that we are a part of a community that is filled with interesting, funny, smart and kind people.
Speaking of kindness, February is “Kindness Month” and we wanted to talk about all of the ways we see kindness happen at camp every day. We also want to remind you that, even though you’re not with us in Thetford, you can continue to carry on the Akeela spirit of kindness at home. Here are some reminders and suggestions.
At camp, you were kind by:
Pitching in with Dining Hall Duty for the good of the larger community
Making an announcement at evening meeting about a friend who was helpful or successful
Cheering on a friend who was climbing the rock wall
Saying, “Nice job!” to a friend who won a game of GaGa
Sending a letter home telling your family you’re thinking of them
At home, you can demonstrate your kindness by:
Helping a sibling make his/her bed before school
Inviting a classmate to join you for lunch
Asking someone over to your house to hangout
Calling a friend from camp to say hello
Going to visit a camp friend
As you’ll read in the camper updates, many of you are getting together with your camp friends and that makes us so happy! It takes some work to maintain friendships – especially when you don’t go to school together. If you’re someone who doesn’t like talking on the phone, send an email! Tell your camp friend what you’re up to, what you’re looking forward to in the coming months and what you can’t wait to do when you’re back at camp this summer!
We’re excited to see you back on the shores of Miller Pond soon – time flies when you’re dreaming of camp!
You can also find this note from Kevin, Kristin, and Mike in the newsletter:
Dear Akeela Families,
We are officially in the “dog days” of winter. After it took forever for the chilly winter weather to settle in (we were not complaining about that!), it seemingly has now arrived. This makes our days together at Akeela in the warm sun seem so far away. One thing we’ve learned is that while camp seems far away right now, time is going to FLY and summer will be here before we know it. Soon enough your family will be working on camp forms (woohoo!), planning out your packing for camp, and then campers will take to planes, trains, and automobiles to get to camp for Opening Day!
How are you getting ready for camp? This time of year, we spend a lot of our time meeting new families and professionals as we begin welcoming the new families joining the Akeela community. Kevin has spent a lot of time on the road this fall and winter at fairs and conferences spreading the word about camp, while Mike and Kristin are busy meeting many new campers and their families as they prepare for their first summer at camp! We feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to think about and share camp with others every day. That helps us get through the especially tough “dog days” of winter.
In this newsletter you’ll find some ways you can start preparing for summer. They’ll help you (both parents and campers) get excited about your upcoming Akeela experience and get a better feel of what to expect. Many of us feel better and more comfortable with something, especially something new, when we take time to intentionally prepare for it. We hope the ideas and other notes in this newsletter will spark some anticipation and preparation for the amazing summer we’re about to share together! If there is anything we can do to help make your transition to Akeela a smooth one, whether you’re a fourth-year camper or this will be your first year at camp, please let us know. We are here to help and can’t wait to spend our summer with you!
When I talk to new families about Camp Akeela, I’m often asked, “How do you teach social skills”? I think what they want to know is, “Who’s curriculum are you using”, or “What is the structure of your social skills groups”? We believe those questions don’t necessarily get to the root of what we’re doing at Akeela.
As a school counselor, I spent years leading “social skills groups” in my Middle School office with kids (many with a diagnosis of ASD or NVLD) who needed more social support. I believe the students enjoyed their time with me and their peers and they certainly had an opportunity to practice socializing with students who were in their grade. But, I’m not sure how well those learned skills really translated back to the field, the lunchroom, the class. What was really missing, were chances to give my students feedback in the moment and then an opportunity to practice using the advice I could give.
Social Skills at Camp Akeela
Camp – ANY good camp – allows for that. Camp provides kids with an opportunity to live with other children their age. They have to work on compromise, sharing, respecting the time and boundaries of their peers. If they’re at the right camp for them, they are meeting other children who want to connect with them and get to know them. The camp community allows campers to practice social skills. At an overnight camp that practice is 24/7 and includes less structured time in the bunk, meals and evening times.
At Akeela – this is our focus. When we created Akeela in 2008, we were intentional about creating as many opportunities as possible for children to connect, have fun AND get constant and consistent feedback from both staff and peers 24/7. They can then practice making use of the feedback they’re getting over and over while they’re at camp. THIS type of teaching is what “sticks” – it’s what transfers back to home and school and extracurriculars. Are “social skills groups” helpful? Sure. But camp is even MORE helpful – especially when the camp is specifically designed to provide kids with an opportunity to focus on their peer relationships and then practice making those connections even stronger. That’s what we do at Akeela.
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!
You can also find this note from Kevin, Kristin, and Mike in the newsletter:
Dear Akeela Families,
When we all return home at the end of each summer we often get the common question from our non-camp family and friends, “So, how was the summer?” It’s a simple and very appropriate question, and yet each year we struggle to find an answer that really encapsulates our summer experiences. Saying, “Great!” just doesn’t seem to give justice to our summer experience. Do you feel this way when you return home, too?
So much happens every day at camp. We experience emotional highs during those magical spontaneous moments, and have to acknowledge that spending as much time as we do around others during each day at camp is going to create some moments of disagreement and stress, which is OKAY. Taking time to reflect on those highs and lows both individually and with our peers each day helps make camp such a special place for us all. Sometimes it feels like we’ve lived a whole separate life for the summer, and trying to explain that to someone who didn’t share those experiences with us is a daunting task!
As we look back on this summer, saying “Great!” is a good start to describing to our time at camp, but there is so much more that we can share. There was that time we went on a hike and took a wrong turn, got really muddy, but sang songs and played games along the way to keep everyone in positive spirits. Or that time when a few campers were uncertain about showing off our talents in front of all of camp, but blew all of their friends away with their performance. We remember seeing the joy and pride on camper’s faces after that so vividly. We remember the feeling of community when each of you made announcements about your new friends in camp, even if you were unsure about meeting someone new. We remember the feeling of friendship that you shared with us by going out to breakfast with a new friend and their family on pickup day.
We hope that as you think back on your summer at camp, that you can reflect fondly on those special moments, the new friendships you made, and acknowledge the hardships you persevered through. We can’t wait to share all of that with you again, and hope that we can all help each other answer the question, “So, how was your summer?” next year.
Also in the newsletter is the following letter from Debbie and Eric:
We can’t believe how quickly time has passed. It seems like yesterday that we were all at camp singing “Friends, Friends, Friends” on the shores of Miller Pond. Suddenly, the trees are changing colors here in Philadelphia and we’re wearing our sweaters. We thought this was a great opportunity to remind you of some of your amazing successes at camp this past summer. Sometimes, after something has ended, it’s hard to remember all of the great feelings you had about it and what you learned. While at Camp Akeela …
You made your own bed EVERY DAY!
You helped clean your bunk EVERY DAY!
You helped with “dining hall duty” with your bunk.
You participated in meal-time discussions with your bunkmates and counselors.
You participated in activities, even new things that made you uncomfortable.
You considered the feelings & needs of the rest of the community.
You survived without electronics or internet access for three and a half weeks!
You made connections with other campers.
You spoke at an Evening Meeting or were recognized at an Evening Meeting.
You went on a hike every week.
You left the comfort of your home and your family to be at Akeela.
We hope you take this opportunity to think back on your time at camp and remember your friends. You should know that your friends are thinking of you too! We think it would be a great idea to email or call your friends from Akeela. You might tell them about your new teacher, your activities outside of school and anything you’re doing for fun. Maybe you’d like to send them a picture of you in your Halloween costume!
As always, we’re thinking of you with great fondness and can’t wait to be together again at camp.