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.
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!)