February 2021 Newsletter and Upcoming Webinars

The February edition of our Akeela newsletter is here!

With cold weather and more snow than we’ve had in a number of years here in Philly, we are even MORE excited that camp is on the horizon! We cannot wait for June! Eric and Ben have been spending a great deal of time interviewing staff who have impressed us with their talents and passion. We’ve also rehired a number of former staff members who can’t wait to get back to Miller Pond. And, of course, we’ve loved catching up with all of you by phone, emails and on our virtual programs. Debbie has been busier than ever meeting and enrolling new campers who are so excited to join the Akeela community this summer.

Camp is happening and we’re ready for it!

Of course, we know many of you have questions about how camp will be different this summer due to COVID. This newsletter includes some answers to those questions. Hopefully, you’ve also visited our COVID web page, which is updated regularly.

You’ll also find information about a couple of very exciting upcoming webinars:

  • February 28, 2021: Helping My Neurodiverse Child Get Ready for Life’s Transitions (Including Going To Camp!), with Dr. Anthony Rostain and Dr. B Janet Hibbs, authors of The Stressed Years of Their Lives.   Register here for this FREE webinar.

Read the entire newsletter here.


December 2020 News – Happy Holidays!

It’s time for our December 2020 Newsletter!

This edition includes an excerpt from our blog post about setting limits and expectations at home, along with a link to a video of the webinar Debbie co-hosted on the same topic. Also included in the newsletter is camper & staff news and a collage of photos showing our community’s Akeela spirit on National Camp T-Shirt Day!

Debbie and Eric also want to wish everyone a very happy holidays …

We’re now in the final month of 2020 – a year many of us have found difficult. As the days get shorter and shorter, we’re reminded of the many spots of light that get us through darker times. Here at our home in Philadelphia, we have created new traditions – birthdays and holidays have become exciting landmarks in an otherwise empty calendar. Birthday decorations have become more important, afternoon walks around the neighborhood are now an opportunity to talk to other people, Zoom holidays with family and friends from all over the world are now the norm, and there has been a lot of baking going on in the kitchen. All of this family time isn’t always easy – our tween often tells us she just wants to be alone! At the same time, our 1st grader hates to be alone for more than a few minutes! We have watched a lot of movies on Netflix.

Yet we are reminded every day how lucky we are. We are especially grateful for our camp community. We spend every day thinking about being back together this summer in Vermont with our campers and staff. When we’re feeling low, we try to focus on a memory from Akeela: being together with friends at the campfire site, laughing on the slide at the lake, watching the talent show as a community. We know that even if camp looks a little different this summer, the feelings that Akeela gives all of us will be the same.

Our wish for all of you is that you take some time to find a light in all of this darkness, that you’re able to wrap yourself in a warm memory from camp, and that it brings you joy and peace. Please know that we’re thinking of all of you and are looking forward to the time when we can all gather together safely.

Here’s to 2021!

With love,
Debbie and Eric

Read the full newsletter here


Structure & Limits at Home

Last month, we had the pleasure of presenting a webinar with our colleague Elise Wulff from MGH Aspire in Boston. This was part of a webinar series offered by CampLauncher. The topic was the importance of setting limits and pushing our kids to take on challenges in an effort to raise children who are resilient. You can watch a video of the webinar using the link below. In the meantime, here are a few of Debbie’s thoughts on the topic.


As parents, our job is to keep our kids safe while also trying to shape them into decent human beings who will one day be able to be ok without us. It often feels like we’re going against our parental instincts to force our kids to struggle. We need to shift our notion of our roles as parents. Helping our children – particularly those diagnosed with Autism or Aspergers – work through the struggle is what enables them to grow up to be independent and resilient.

There is a great deal of research published about the importance of raising children who have grit. I encourage you to read anything by Angela Duckworth, and to watch her TED Talk about Grit. In fact, she spoke to us at the largest gathering of camp professionals a few years ago and Eric and I were struck by how naturally camp works on teaching these important skills to campers with ASD and NVLD.

Camps force children to step outside of their comfort zones. Especially for children with ASD or NVLD – sticking with what’s comfortable and familiar is a first choice. If we were to allow our children to keep doing what makes them feel safest, they might never learn what they’re capable of. They may never learn new skills, make new friends, try new foods!

Camp is an example of a way that many parents choose to push their children in a healthy way to develop grit. Sleeping in a new place, living with 10 or so other people, swimming in a lake with fish, eating foods that might be different colors, textures, smells! Climbing a rock wall, going on a hike, petting a goat – these seem like simple tasks for some people but for many children, some of these tasks seem impossible or – more often, just don’t seem necessary. But when we encourage children (any child) to do something they think they can’t or say they won’t do, and then they see that they can do it – we have just taught them that the leap of faith makes it worth it. Then – the more they do that thing or have the experience of trying something less preferred, they get better and better at it and they are more likely to do something totally new the next time it comes up.

So, while the push might be hard for us as parents – and it takes effort, we know – at the end, it will be worth it.


Watch A Recording Of The Webinar Now



November 2020 Newsletter

It’s time for the latest issue of Camp Akeela’s monthly newsletter! In this edition, we announce two exciting — and FREE — upcoming webinars for parents and professionals:

  1. October 29th: IEPs and Your Child’s Rights In the Time of COVID
    With education attorney (and Debbie’s best childhood camp friend!) Nicole Joseph.
    Register Here
  2. November 15th: Tools and Strategies for Setting Limits and Providing Structure at Home
    With Debbie & Eric Sasson and Elise Wulff from MHG Aspire
    Information and registration here

Also featured is a reprint of our recent blog post about Chris Rock. As you may know, he recently announced is diagnosis of NLD, aka NVLD. In the blog, we discuss the complex question of diagnoses. On one hand, labels can’t ever define who we are as individuals. Indeed, at Camp Akeela, we don’t ask in the application process, nor pay much attention to, whether or not our campers have any particular diagnoses. On the other hand, Chris Rock’s story demonstrates the ways in which receiving a diagnosis can, for some people, be a way of better understanding themselves and their place in the world. When they help us better accept our exceptional differences and/or connect us with a larger community of people with similar life experiences, labels can be a wonderful thing!

Also in Akeela’s November newsletter:

  • A schedule of upcoming virtual events for campers. Games Night is November 9th and Trivia Night is November 19th.
  • More “Good News” from Akeela campers and alumni.
  • November 10th is National Camp T-Shirt Day. Be prepared to put on your favorite Akeela swag and send us photos!

Read the entire November 2020 Newsletter here.


Chris Rock And NLD: Why His Diagnosis Matters

As most people have already heard, comedian Chris Rock shared that he was diagnosed with NVLD (Non-Verbal Learning Disorder) in September. All of the entertainment outlets – along with the TV show Rock was promoting, of course – shared the news with the world and found themselves having to teach the public what NLD actually is! It’s helpful when someone famous shares personal information with the public as it often has the effect of educating others. We’re thrilled that this often overlooked and misunderstood diagnosis is getting a bit more attention.

Camp Akeela specializes in young people who have Asperger’s and NLD (aka NVLD). When people see the term “Non Verbal Learning Disorder” on our website, they sometimes ask if that means that our campers are “nonverbal”, meaning unable to speak. In this regard, the name of the diagnosis could not be more misleading! In truth, and Chris Rock is now a very shining example of this, those with a diagnosis of NVLD (or NLD) are highly verbal. Our campers are incredibly bright and quite adept at oral communication.

Rock received his diagnosis after a friend wondered if Rock had Asperger’s; the two diagnoses overlap a great deal. Like individuals with a diagnosis of Asperger’s, those with NLD often find it challenging to initiate and/or maintain relationships with others. They may see the world in a more black and white or rigid way and many are not diagnosed earlier on in their childhoods because they are doing so well in their academic setting. All of this applies equally to many people who identify with the Asperger’s label, or a similar ASD or neurodiverse profile.

At Akeela, we frequently talk about labels being unimportant in almost all settings. To a great extent, labels are most useful in that they help kids and teens receive the services they need and deserve. Schools and insurance companies often look for the official diagnoses before approving those services. However, we’ve come to learn that there is another way in which labels and diagnoses can be important: Many of our campers tell us that having a professional tell them why they might be struggling socially can be life-changing and affirming. It gives them a language with which to better understand themselves and a community to which they belong.

I can only imagine how Mr. Rock felt when he got the diagnosis. In interviews, he alludes to a new sense of understanding and an ability to push himself in new ways, in an effort to learn and grow. As an example, he recently started to learn how to swim and he views diving into the deep end, even though it filled him with fear, as a great metaphor for his life today. If more people are aware of what it means to be living with the cluster of traits that make up NLD or Aspergers or autism spectrum disorders, then maybe they will have access to more support and will feel that they can dive into the deep end when they’re ready.

Speaking of perfect metaphors, there is no better first step off that diving board than going to sleepaway camp!


Successful (aka Safe) Camp During COVID

Late this spring, we were planning our Akeela Family Camp and I was so thrilled to be a part of the fun and excitement. Much to my surprise, I got a call in May, inviting me to spend the summer at another camp! Our colleagues at Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Camps in Decatur, Michigan were running a modified version of their regular camp program and asked if I could join their summer leadership team.

As much as I love Akeela, I could not pass up an incredible opportunity to help our fellow camp professionals and to learn just what it takes to open camp successfully in a COVID-19 world. I made my way out to the Midwest in mid-June to assist with staff training, camp set-up and to fill the role of middle aged boys division leader (the Akeela equivalent of a Head Counselor)! As you can imagine, a lot of adaptations must be put in place in order to make camp safe in the current health environment. For starters, all Lake of the Woods campers were required to receive a negative COVID test result a week prior to the camp’s opening day. Meanwhile, we made sure that all cabins and buildings had extra space and ventilation, adjusted virtually all of the dining hall meal service procedures, and planned activities that were able to run without risking cross-contamination between pods of campers. (All very technical stuff!)

Coronavirus Precautions for Summer Camp

Once campers arrived, campers took their second COVID test, which gave results within 15 minutes. These two tests taken within a week of each other gave us confidence as we built a COVID-free “bubble”. Nevertheless, as an additional precaution, campers kept their mask on and stayed in close proximity to their cabin-mates. On the fifth day of camp, everyone tested negative yet again, allowing us to progress to a phase in which campers could enjoy outdoor activities within their “pod” without masks. In retrospect, this all sounds fairly straightforward and simple. However, there were so many factors that were tough to foresee and consider until the moment, which at times was a little scary!

As all of this was happening, the incredible staff were extremely diligent with disinfecting all program equipment, whether that be sports balls, life jackets, or even harnesses and ropes at the ropes course! Holding each other accountable with appropriate distancing, hygiene and masking was the key component of remaining safe. I learned through this process the amount of testing, equipment and thorough cleaning required to maintain safety.

Of course, all of this mask-wearing and distance-keeping felt a little weird. There was less singing, chanting, and interaction than normal. However, we all understood that these minor restrictions were the best way to keep everybody healthy and have as “normal” a camp experience as possible. And ultimately, that’s what we accomplished. It was truly a successful summer, in every sense of the word. Everyone at Lake of the Woods was healthy and was overjoyed at getting to enjoy a summer at camp.

Despite the jubilation of completing a summer with hundreds of campers and staff and zero positive cases, there were special aspects about Akeela that I missed dearly! Our daily evening meetings and announcements of recognition, the Akeela Pageant, digestive dance parties, and hike days – just to name a few!

With the knowledge I gained from my experience at Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods, I am confident that we can adapt Akeela in manageable and digestible ways in order to open safely for 2021. Our returning staff are so excited to get back on the shores of Miller Pond and make the 2021 summer an experience for campers one they will never forget! In the coming months, we are excited to keep in touch with Akeela campers and families, as we diligently put together a safe and enjoyable program that will have camp feeling like camp again, despite living in a world where we need to be a little more careful. We can’t wait to see you all at camp!

Ben


October 2020 Newsletter

We hope you’ll check out the latest issue of Camp Akeela’s monthly newsletter! In this edition, we highlight a couple of recent blog posts.

One is a piece about Summer 2020: it was a very different summer for all of us and we were extremely sad that our regular camp sessions weren’t able to run. At the same time, we had a wonderful time at Akeela Family Camp and we learned a ton about how to run a safe, healthy camp in a COVID-19 environment. That experience, along with lessons learned from our colleagues who ran successful camps this summer, have made us feel 100% ready to open Akeela in the summer of 2021. We are counting down the days until then!

The other blog that’s highlighted in the newsletter is a piece that Debbie wrote about some strategies we can all use to maintain feelings of control in such a new and unpredictable world. Everyone feels less anxious and happier when they know what to expect from their immediate future. That’s even more true for many of our campers, who really thrive when things are “previewed” for them as much as possible. In her blog, Debbie recommends that parents do the following:

  1. encourage their kids to find social outlets with friends
  2. create family schedules of activities and explicit expectations (including chores!)
  3. involve their kids in advance planning of meals
  4. get everyone outside and active
  5. use a calendar to mark future events to look forward to, including the start of camp next summer!

Also in the newsletter is some “Good News” about Akeela wedding engagements and marriages, along with some photos from our summer at camp.

Read the entire October 2020 Newsletter here.


Helping Our Children (And Ourselves) Feel More In Control

It’s hard to believe that summer has come and gone. When we started hearing about the coronavirus, we were confident that “they” would have it all figured out well before camp was scheduled to start. It seems like ages ago we were on bi-weekly calls with our colleagues discussing PPE and testing. In reality, it’s been about six months. Our two daughters started school virtually and we’re working remotely with our year-round team, working hard on planning for the 2021 camp season. Managing work and school plus all of our other responsibilities like grocery shopping, meal prep, cleaning the house, commitments to organizations has been challenging. While this was all novel in the spring, it’s now become tedious, tiresome and frightening – as we’re sure it has for many of you.

For our campers (many of whom have a diagnosis of ASD or NVLD), knowing what to expect ahead of time is very helpful and often an important tool in managing their anxiety. So much about today’s world makes it impossible to have that security of knowing what to expect. I often think about what I can do to help our daughters (and ourselves, frankly) feel safer. What can we do to help our children – especially autistic children and those with Aspergers Syndrome – feel more in control and have more agency during these uncertain times?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Encouragement: Have your camper come up with an activity (outside of school) that will enable them to interact with other kids through a shared interest. This might have to be virtual for now but could evolve into an in-person activity in the near future. For example: learning a new instrument, exploring a new hobby (a craft project like learning how to sew a quilt or clothing), or joining a virtual game of Dungeons & Dragons.
  2. Schedules: Create a family schedule for the weekends when everyone can pitch in. Perhaps one morning is set aside for everyone to help clean your living space. This gives you an opportunity to teach your children valuable life skills and also provides some help with tasks that need to get accomplished anyway!  
  3. Family Meal Planning: Have a family meeting to figure out meals for the week. Can you ask your camper to prepare their own lunches? (This can be done the night before on school days or can be left on a shelf in the fridge with a piece of tape with his/her name so they know what’s been set aside.) Perhaps campers can help make a grocery list and learn how to help prepare meals. Many of our campers love to cook or bake and this might be a great time to help them develop this skill.
  4. Get Outside: Encourage campers to get outside. Walking the dog — for a set minimum amount of time — is a great daily activity for our ASD and NVLD campers. One of our Family Campers this summer told us that his son has to walk the dog for an hour before returning home!  No pets? Campers can put on a mask and bike, scooter, walk in the neighborhood/city with a sibling or friend. When it’s raining, campers can still go out for a walk or can make use of any covered outdoor space.  
  5. Look Forward: Finally, having something to look forward to is always helpful.  We’re counting down the days until Akeela 2021. Perhaps your camper wants to take a calendar (or print one from the computer) and start tracking the days until he/she will be with us at camp! 

– Eric and Debbie Sasson
Your Camp Akeela Directors

In case you hadn’t heard, our dates for summer 2021:

  • 1st Session: Saturday June 26th – Monday, July 19th
  • 2nd Session: Thursday, July 22nd – Saturday, August 14th

If you’re the parent of a child with autism, asperger’s, another nvld or who is otherwise quirky, find out how to apply for camp next year or reach out to our staff today!

Connect With Our Directors


Reflections on Summer 2020

I’m pretty sure we can all say that summer 2020 did not go as planned. Everyone was scrambling to shift gears and make alternate plans. I know that we felt a huge loss when we made the decision to cancel our planned camp sessions. Because we were so busy planning for our alternate summer, we did not have time to process those sad feelings. We have heard from many campers who told us that, at different times during the summer, they realized how much they missed their friends, counselors and the sense of community they feel at Akeela. While we feel terribly that we played a part in the sadness of our campers and their families, it does remind us how lucky we are to be a part of such a special place. Perhaps 2020 will be the year that helps us appreciate everything we have.

We certainly felt lucky that we got to spend our summer up at camp with the staff members and families who joined us for Family Camp. Being on Miller Pond gave us a small sense of normalcy and enabled us to reconnect with that special place. Our staff arrived more than two weeks before our first set of campers and we spent that time getting the site ready. We worked hard preparing the tennis courts, pool, lake and art studio! The archery and golf nets had to get put up and all of our sports equipment had to be prepared. There was a lot of hard work accomplished by our team! Most importantly, our dedicated staff got a chance to take off their masks (after 2 negative COVID tests) and enjoy being a “pod” with their friends. We all appreciated the time we had together after feeling so isolated last spring.

Finally, our first autism/asperger’s family campers arrived and brought with them lots of energy and laughter. Our team was able to do what they love most – play and learn with kids and parents. For us, seeing camp inhabited with enthusiasm brought us so much joy and also some sadness; We really missed having our entire community together. While Chefs Trina and Angie made us some of our favorite camp food, the dining hall felt empty and too quiet. The lake was cool and, as always, was the center of lots of excitement and yet not having the slide out (because of COVID) was a constant reminder that this summer was different.

Still, those of us who were lucky enough to be together this summer relished our time at camp. Being with like-minded people is always restorative and this summer, that was even more true. Parents, campers and our staff formed lasting friendships and a true connection with our Akeela community. We truly missed all of our friends who couldn’t come up to Vermont this summer and we are so excited to be together in person on Miller Pond in 2021!

In case you didn’t see them, our dates for summer 2021:

  • 1st Session: Saturday June 26th – Monday, July 19th
  • 2nd Session: Thursday, July 22nd – Saturday, August 14th

If you’re the parent of a child with autism, asperger’s, another nvld or who is otherwise quirky, find out how to apply for camp next year or reach out to our staff today!

Connect With Our Directors


Why We All Need Family Camp

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.

We invite you to learn more about our 2020 Family Camp and call us with any questions!