Despite a very rainy first session, 2023 was an absolutely wonderful summer at Camp Akeela! It was filled with friendship, spirit, warmth, pride and fun. All of that comes from bringing together a community of incredibly kind campers who open themselves up to all of the wonders that camp has to offer.
As we look back on the summer, we feel so much gratitude for our staff. Speaking with our colleagues in the camp world always reminds us just how lucky we are to attract such a talented, passionate and dedicated set of counselors and staff members. 2023 brought a large group of first-time Akeela counselors and as we’ve following up with them throughout the fall, it’s striking to hear how much Akeela already means to them. They think about camp as they resume their college coursework or get back to their jobs, and many are planning to return for another summer in 2024!
Debbie, Eric and Erin are already busy in our Philadelphia office preparing for next summer. In addition to re-enrolling returning campers, we have a record number of new families inquiring about camp and we’re excited to share the Akeela experience with them!
Thank you to all of the parents/guardians and campers who completed our post-summer surveys. We’re always learning and growing, and are so grateful for your partnership in continuing to expand Akeela’s horizons!
We hope you enjoy this newsletter, in which you will find:
A reminder of 2024’s dates
Quotes from the post-camp survey responses
A fall recipe from Chef Trina
News about our most recent (and 14th) “Akeela baby”
These newsletters contain a lot of important and exciting information about this coming summer, including:
What’s New At Akeela This Summmer: new ropes course elements, an amazing inflatable in the lake and pickleball!
Where Campers Come From: a cool look at how many states (and countries) are represented by our 2023 campers.
Head Counselors: what is their role and camp and who are the 2023 head counselors?
Camp Nurses: Meet Pam and Chuck, our wonderful health care team
Camper To Do List: A few things campers can do between now and arrival to get ready for the best summer of their lives!
What To Expect On The First Day: A detailed breakdown of what that camp arrival day will be like
The parent newsletter also begins with the following thoughts from Debbie:
Both of our daughters (ages 14 and 9) will be away at their camp this summer for 7 weeks. I’m a camp director and we’re very friendly with the camp directors who run their camp. I “shouldn’t” be nervous, right? But I am! I am a worrier and I worry most about my family – so when I allow myself to get caught up in thinking about the “what-ifs”, it can get pretty messy and then my anxiety is obvious to my kids.
I know that my most important task right now is to help instill a sense of confidence in my children before they are at camp on their own. In order to do that I also need to prepare myself, and that takes time and energy – a positive energy. Pushing through our own fears and worries needs to be a priority so we can meet our children with a “clean slate”. They need to feel our optimism and confidence that going to camp will be a life-changing experience – one that will enable them to become more independent and confident, and will hopefully open them up to meaningful friendships that will last a long time. Our children are intuitive and if they sense that we’re afraid about this very big transition, they will take on that worry themselves.
Some things that I’ve found helpful, and some advice for those of you who are worried and anxious about camp this summer:
Write it down! Take some time during the day (not right before bed or you’ll never be able to fall asleep!) to jot down anything that’s making you feel anxious. Writing your worries down will allow you to acknowledge them and either use your notes to address the concern, or let it go.
This includes making lists – what do you need to do? Have you completed your forms? Sent in the RX from the pediatrician? Looked at the packing list to assess what you might need? And have you gone through last year’s “camp stuff” to see what still fits?
Call us! If you’re concerned about something, maybe we can help. Sometimes, more information is helpful in minimizing our fears.
Breathe! Go for a walk or take 10 minutes with a cup of tea to just relax. How often do you allow yourself to take time for just yourself? It’s important and it’s helpful.
Read “Homesick and Happy” by Michael Thompson. This is a great book, especially for first-time camp parents. It’s filled with helpful information, plus – reading will help you take your mind off of your own worries.
By the way, this is great advice for your anxious camper, too! Once you are feeling confident about having your camper with us at camp, take some time to sit down with them to make a list of their “things to do” before camp. Maybe there’s one task you can do together each week to prepare, for example: address envelopes for letters to family/friends, email Debbie/Eric/Erin a few questions, make a list of books/card games/crafts you want to bring to camp, etc.
You may also want to help your camper make a list or start a journal with things they’re looking forward to doing at camp. Do they have a goal in mind? Something new they want to try or something they want to accomplish? It’s also a great time to start pushing your camper to be more independent in anticipation of being on their own this summer. Are younger campers getting ready for bed and school independently? (Showering, brushing their teeth, putting away their clothes …) Are older campers thinking about non-electronic tasks they can do during down times this summer? Having your camper think about these things NOW will help them feel more prepared as summer approaches.
Finally, as I’ve written about this year on a few different occasions, it’s important to use language that acknowledges a child’s worries but also expresses confidence. Statements like, “I know you’re worried about going to camp AND I’m really certain that you can do this.” These types of statements are the loving push our campers need to feel more secure in this transition.
We’re very excited to see your child up at camp in a very short time – sooner if you’ll be joining us for our Open House in June! Your camper’s head counselor will be emailing you in mid-June to introduce themselves to you and they’ll want to know if there’s anything on your mind. Feel free to start a list now that you can email or call once our team is all up in Vermont. Enjoy your Spring and we’ll see you soon!
First, I finished reading one of the most insightful and helpful books I’ve read in a long time. It’s called, “The Coddling of the American Mind”. You’ve maybe heard of it, as the authors, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, have been discussing their thoughts on social media for a number of years now. The book was published in 2018 after their article in The Atlantic got a lot of attention a few years earlier. I read it because I was interested in hearing their thoughts about life on college campuses, both because we work with 100 college students every summer and because I’m raising two daughters who will one day be young adults themselves!
The second thing I did was take a 2-day training with Eli Liebowitz at the Yale Child Study Center. I wrote about his SPACE program in a previous blog and was so interested in his theory and process that I wanted to learn how to put it into practice myself. As a reminder, Dr. Leibowitz has created a way for clinicians to work with the PARENTS of kids who are anxious in an effort to help them teach their children that they have the ability to do hard things, that they can work through discomfort – without parents “accommodating” them by removing the stressors or coming to their aid. The idea is that we can help parents step back so that their children understand their own resilience. It’s powerful and it works!
Insights from “The Coddling of the American Mind” and the SPACE Program
So, what do these two accomplishments have in common, and what do they have to do with camp? Well, first, I love sharing resources with our Akeela community so I’d urge you to explore both the book and the SPACE program. Also, I’m excited to bring what I’ve learned to our campers and staff this summer. The biggest overlap for me is the idea that when things make us feel uncomfortable, we are not necessarily unsafe or in any real danger. There is what Haidt and Lukianoff call the “Great Untruth” of “safetyism” that is pervasive on college campuses and, I would argue, is also spreading out into the general public, including our middle and high schools. They suggest that many people now believe this: “What doesn’t kill me makes me weaker”….a (faulty) belief that we need to avoid all pain and any POTENTIAL struggle.
Another “untruth” from the book is “Always trust your feelings” without challenging or questioning them. The authors explain that there is an underlying sense that we need to act on our FEELINGS without pause. “Trusting your gut” is fine and serves a purpose, but both of these untruths also mean that a large number of people – and I’m most worried about our teens and young adults here – are missing out on GROWTH opportunities. Blindly following your feelings rather than questioning the thoughts and data that might accompany those emotions can be unwise and unhelpful. If we don’t face challenges or take a chance, we will never learn or stretch — and that is concerning. If we allow our child to sleep next to us every night because he is afraid of the dark, we are not giving him the chance to develop a belief in himself that he can be safe on his own. If we allow our child to eat by herself in the nurse’s office every day because she’s worried that someone will tease her in the cafeteria, we are validating her belief/thought that she can’t tolerate discomfort of something that hasn’t even happened yet … and thus might miss out on making a friend.
Encouraging Growth Through Discomfort at Camp
One of the suggestions at the end of “Coddling” is that parents should send their children to camp. Of course! Camp is where we challenge campers to stretch their comfort zones. Parents often ask me on our initial call about camp, “What do you recommend when a child doesn’t want to go to camp because he’s never done it before?” And I always say the same thing, “MOST children – especially children who struggle socially and with anxiety – do not want to do something new. It’s hard and it takes work … AND with guidance and managed expectations, most kids are able to push through that initial fear and are able to truly thrive at camp.” What a gift to be able to give to children: the ability to help them learn that they have what it takes to work through something uncomfortable, and to come out the other side of those feelings with a sense of accomplishment and pride, stronger and more resilient for the experience. It’s honestly the best part of what we do at camp.
Akeela’s Commitment to Helping Children Thrive at Camp
A few takeaways that we’ll be implementing at camp this summer:
We will continue to encourage our campers and staff to recognize the growth potential in doing things that make them uncomfortable: things they are scared to try, things that they think they may not be good at, things they’ve never done before — of course without ever compromising their physical or emotional safety.
We will use language like this, “I know you’re worried about trying this and I’m 100% confident that you have what it takes to do it.”
We will not “over-accommodate” campers or staff who are feeling anxious about something. Instead, we will explain how confident we are that they can do it and will give them space and support they need to succeed.
While none of this is really NEW to us at Akeela, it’s always nice to be reminded how important camp is. We believe that camp is one of the best ways to teach kids (and staff) the skills they need to become resilient. We can’t wait to get back to work this summer!
An important note before moving on to the rest of this post:
Akeela is a community that prides itself, above all else, on being welcoming to everyone. Our whole purpose is to provide a space where “quirky” kids can be themselves, surrounded by peers and counselors who don’t just accept them for who they are, but who adore them just the way they are. That core belief extends beyond neurodiversity to include all forms of diversity, including gender. Many of our campers identify beyond the binary and it goes without saying that they are integral and thriving members of our camp community. While we are currently discussing gender-inclusive housing for upcoming summers, Akeela has to date offered “boys cabins” and “girls cabins”. It is with that binary housing framework in mind that we explore the topic of neurodiversity and gender in this blog post.
Since its inception, Camp Akeela has always been very intentional about creating a coed community. That may have something to do with Eric’s own experiences as a camper. His first overnight camp, which he attended for three summers, was an all-boys camp. There was a sister camp a few miles away and the only times the two camps mixed were at weekly “socials”. These events were not Eric’s forte; they felt forced and awkward. There was peer pressure to make an impression on the girls, but no opportunity to really get to know any of them as friends. When he was 12, Eric started attending a different camp, and he stayed there for 12 summers! It was a coed camp that had as one of its founding principles the idea that boys and girls should develop natural friendships through shared experiences. There were no socials; instead, campers swam, hiked, ate, and played together every day. The results were just as that camp’s founders intended: Eric developed as many lifelong friendships with girls as he did with the boys in his cabin.
When creating Camp Akeela, we shared the philosophy of Eric’s second childhood camp. It was really important to us, from the perspective of camp culture, to remove any potential barriers between potential friends at camp. We wanted to make it as easy as possible for campers to have friendships wherever they organically developed in the Akeela community. We were also told by many parents who were signing up for camp that their children tended to get along better with kids who didn’t share their gender and/or who were of a different age.
All of that is to say that we always wanted Akeela to have as close to a one-to-one ratio of boys to girls as possible. It turns out that was easier said than done! To the extent that many of our families find us through their child’s diagnosis of Asperger’s or ASD, we have always received more phone calls from parents of boys than parents of girls. Indeed, as recently as 2022, it was estimated that ASD was diagnosed three to four times more often in boys than in girls.
As an aside, there is quite a bit of excellent literature out there about why this imbalance exists. A quick Google search turned up these results on the first page:
Why Many Autistic Girls Are Overlooked: They often go undiagnosed because they don’t fit autism stereotypes and they mask symptoms better than boys do.
Written by Beth Arky and published by the Child Mind Institute,
As we said in our most recent camp newsletter (https://campakeela.com/akeela-newsletter-february-2023/), we are starting to see a marked increase in the number of girls applying to Camp Akeela. This is a trend that we are thrilled about – both because expect to have more female-identifying campers in 2023 than ever before and because it indicates that girls are starting to receive the diagnoses and support that they deserve!
Akeela will be celebrating our Sweet 16 this summer! A lot has changed since our first summer together on Miller Pond. In 2008:
We had three sessions with 40 campers in each session.
There was no porch on the Dining Hall!
Bunks 7, 8, 16, 17 & 18 weren’t yet built!
The archery range was where the golf range currently is (and there was no golf program)!
Debbie and Eric didn’t have any kids yet! (Debbie was pregnant with their daughter, Margo.)
Evening Meeting was held every night at “The Chimney” – a small platform that was where the Lodge is now, and where the Amphitheater is now was just woods back then!
One big change this summer is that we have one more bunk dedicated to our female-identifying campers, getting us closer to having a more balanced gender ratio. We are so thrilled to know that we are getting closer to camp fully representing neurodiversity across all genders. It seems that camp is reflective of the shift in the diagnostics recently as well. More and more girls are getting diagnosed with ASD, ADHD and NVLD and are finally finding the support and community they deserve.
It’s hard to believe that it’s already (almost) March! We’ll be heading to New Jersey in 2 weeks for our annual conference with over 3,000 other camp professionals. It’s one of our favorite weeks of the year as we love learning from our colleagues and bringing wonderful new ideas back to Akeela. It also signifies, for us, that camp is JUST around the corner. From all of our years in camping, we know that the next few months will be filled with planning our staff orientation, scheduling a few online camper zooms, and sending parents lots of information and forms!
We know that YOU are also getting ready for camp and this Newsletter is filled with lots of reminders about upcoming dates/deadlines and tips to help you (campers and parents) prepare for a wonderful summer at Akeela. Please make sure you read through the Family Handbook carefully and call or email us if you have any questions.
In this version of the Akeela newsletter, you will find:
Information about CampLauncher, a nonprofit organization that helps to increase access to specialized camps like ours.
A reminder about Open House at camp, for enrolled families, taking place on on June 11th this year
An exciting announcement about a new activity at Akeela this summer!
Guidelines for how campers can prepare for camp between now and the summer
A “Parent Planner” of items for parents and guardians to keep on their radar as camp approaches
As the parent of a child with Asperger’s, we know that you want to find the right camp that will help your child develop social skills, confidence, and independence. With so many choices available, it can be overwhelming to choose the right camp for your child. Here are some things to consider when choosing an Asperger’s Teen Camp for 2023.
Akeela offers a unique experience for kids and teens with Asperger’s, and similar neurodiverse profiles, with a focus on social skills development
Camp Akeela is truly something special, offering a unique summer experience for campers with Asperger’s. With a focus on social skills development, Camp Akeela provides an environment that promotes independence, self-confidence, and growth. Through activities specifically tailored to neurodivergent children, as well as scaffolded support from specialists in fields like Social Work, Psychology or Special Education, Camp Akeela allows these remarkable children to take part in experiences unlike any other summer camp – growing and learning together as part of an accepting community.
Camp Akeela also offers a variety of activities, from traditional camp activities like swimming and hiking to more specialized programs like drama, music, cooking, and art. With a wide range of activities for all interests and ability levels, your child will be able to make the most out of their summer at Camp Akeela.
Camp Akeela provides a supportive and inclusive environment for all children
Camp Akeela is an Asperger’s sleepaway camp that creates a unique and supportive environment for children with neurodiversity. Through empowering activities and interactive social skills workshops, campers begin to build community as they create meaningful friendships through trust, mutual respect, and love. Every activity is designed to foster a sense of unity as everyone strives to reach confidence and independence in an inclusive atmosphere. Camp Akeela not only encourages campers to make friends and be productive within their own social circles – they also provide lasting impressions as these children leave the camp each summer brimming with a newfound sense of self-belief and appreciation for those around them.
Akeela helps children to develop confidence and independence through various activities
At Camp Akeela, Asperger’s children can experience the benefits of developing confidence and gaining independence through engaging in age-appropriate activities that are combined with being part of a team. These activities include sports, crafts, and nature-based projects as well as educational discussions intended to help children improve their social skills as well as learn problem-solving strategies. The dedicated staff and volunteers at this camp strive to create a safe and supportive environment where children have the opportunity to develop positive self-esteem as they embrace the challenges of achieving their goals in this encouraging summer camp setting.
The camp staff are experienced and qualified to work with neurodiverse children
At Camp Akeela, camp counselors are experienced and qualified to provide the highest quality of care for children with neurodiversity. They understand the unique needs of campers and recognize that fostering independence is a key factor in campers’ social and cognitive development. Through activities like sports or recreational events, campers learn to work together as a team while developing problem-solving skills and self-empowerment. Camp staff carefully observe campers’ progress and adjust the activities accordingly so campers can gain a sense of accomplishment, improve their confidence and build meaningful relationships with their camp peers.
Camp Akeela is the perfect place for you to apply your child for camp 2023! This supportive, creative, and engaging summer sleepaway camp allows children with Asperger’s or NLD — or similar neurodivergent campers — to have an amazing time building social skills, independence, and developing confidence. Through various activities designed specifically for them, your child will be able to gain an unforgettable experience meeting new friends and creating positive memories that will last forever. Don’t miss out on this amazing opportunity!
The newest edition of the Camp Akeela newsletter is here! In it, you will find:
A quick recap of the results of our post-camp survey for parents and guardians.
Updates from campers, including news & photos from recent get-togethers with camp friends, family vacations and accomplishments at school.
Erin’s thoughts on her first summer at Camp Akeela. Spoiler: She loved it!
The amazing results from the Akeela community’s fundraising efforts for CampLauncher. Our Launch-A-Thons raised over $22,000 for the charity.
Reflections on our new ICON (In Camp OverNight) program, which was a smashing success.
A reminder to put some Akeela swag on your holiday shopping lists.
Staff updates, including a bunch of mini reunions and news of Erin’s recent engagement!
To preview the survey results, here are a few comments that came from Akeela parents:
Akeela fulfilled all of our hopes and dreams — it was just what we were looking for! She found the place where the other kids and the staff “get” her and she can’t wait to go back!
He is more confident and more independent. He has new ways to express his needs and how he feels. He has a better sense of who he is and who he wants to be.
He had a remarkable experience. From my point of view, as a parent who did sleepover camp for over ten years and then worked on staff, I really wanted him to have the kind of life-changing experience I did. Finally we found a place where he can.
And here are a few improvements that we’re already working on, as a direct result of feedback we received in those parent surveys:
We will be partnering with a different medication packaging service.
We will be sending home more information about camper’s in-cabin counselors and specialists just prior to, or at the start of, the camp session.
We’ll provide more options for how parents and guardians receive communication from their camper’s Head Counselor during the summer.
I was made aware of a program at the Yale Child Study Center last year and since hearing about it from a clinical colleague, it has come up around a dozen times. The program is called SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions) and was created by Dr. Eli Lebowitz. The premise is one that I believe is the key to helping anxious children work through their emotions so that they can overcome challenges that might be keeping them from participating fully in activities (including ones that might seem “easy” to others – like sleeping). SPACE works with parents of anxious children. The child never actually meets with the therapist! Parents are taught how to set limits and boundaries around their own behaviors.
Common Methods of Dealing with Childhood Anxiety
As parents, we often OVER-support and over-correct for our child when they are struggling – it’s natural to want to fix something when our child is having a hard time. In actuality, rather than helping, we are often giving our children the message that they are helpless or that they have REASON to be anxious. We’re reinforcing their worries.
This is one of the key factors that contributes to why I believe our campers are so successful at Akeela. Parents often ask us, “What’s your secret?”, “How did you get my child to do xyz?”. There are a few answers but many times, it has to do with the fact that we are not our campers’ parents. That means that we have a different relationship with the children in our care and we are more likely to be able to set boundaries with them when necessary and helpful. In other words, we can be objective. At home, when a child is struggling, they know that a caregiver will likely be able to help them. They may ask for that help before they really do the hard work of trying over and over to accomplish their goal. At camp, a counselor is also always nearby but a child may actually make more of an effort to solve a problem or try something difficult before they ask for help. And when they ask for help, a counselor at camp is more likely to support them and cheer them on as they insist that the camper do the work before they step in themselves.
Providing Independence to Help Manage Childhood Anxiety
Camp provides a safe space for children to challenge and push themselves. Without parents to quickly step in and “fix” or “smooth out” challenges, campers learn that they have the necessary skills to do the hard things in life. Just the decision to send a child away to camp is an indicator that a parent WANTS a child to gain these skills. Although not always easy, letting go as a parent sends a message to a camper that they have faith that the child has the skills necessary to be independent.
As you think about sending your child away to camp for the first time, try to challenge yourself to wait before stepping in to aid your child. Tell them you believe in them – that you believe they have the skills necessary to complete the task or work through the anxiety at hand. Many children are motivated by camp (or another upcoming event, trip or social opportunity) and parents can use that as a way to help children step out of their own anxiety. You can say something like, “I know this feels hard right now but I/we know you can work through it on your own. Going to camp means that you will be able to accomplish so much without our help and this a great opportunity for you to practice right now.”
As parents, we have to do our own hard work in order to help our children succeed to the best of their ability. We have to let go of our very natural instinct to want to protect, save and care for our children when they are having a hard time. Because, in the end, letting go and stepping away is the most helpful thing we can do.
For more information about SPACE, you can check out these links:
The March 2022 edition of the Camp Akeela newsletter has arrived! In this issue:
Eric and Debbie share a few thoughts about how excited they are for this coming summer
Suggestions of specific things that campers can do between now and the summer to help them get ready for an amazing experience at Akeela
A “Parent Planner” to remind parents and guardians of what they have coming up in terms of preparation for camp
A wonderful piece written by Erin about how camp touches all of her senses
Important dates for upcoming camper Zoom gatherings
Vermont trivia, including the answer to last newsletter’s question
An enthusiastic welcome back and Q & A with Nurse Amy and her family
Lists of returning campers and returning staff members
Speaking of returning counselors, we invite you to follow us on Instagram and Facebook, where we will be introducing the community to the amazing new staff members that we’re bringing to Akeela this summer.