Working at a Special Needs Camp

With the Recruitment Fairs coming up soon with Camp Leaders I thought I would post my experience I shared with them recently of working at Special Needs Camps. There will be a lot of these camps at the fairs so it is definitely worth a read!

Whilst working as an interviewer over the last three years and talking to many potential applicants, when asked many have reservations about going to a special needs camp. Which is understandably so if you don’t know much about it. I always advise applicants to be as open-minded as possible because as well as the obvious challenges there are also a lot of perks to the job.

Firstly, it is important to understand that when talking about special needs camps, not every camp is going to be a case where you are going to be working with campers who have severe disabilities and need constant care with tasks like showering and changing diapers. This is only the most extreme type of situation that you could work in but there is, in fact, a broad range of special needs camps, and having worked at 3 different special needs camps over 4 years I have worked in many different situations.

My first camp, Camp Dogwood in North Carolina where I spent my first two summers, would be an example of a camp that is much lower on the spectrum. Camp Dogwood was a camp solely for the blind and if anyone needed additional personal care they had to bring a carer to camp with them, so the only additional training I had in comparison to what you would at a standard camp was blind sensitivity training. My role was Waterfront director so I spent the majority of my time taking campers out on the water either on boating trips or water skiing, knee boarding and tubing. And before you ask, yes, people who are blind are more than capable of doing these activities. I used to take out one couple knee boarding who were both totally blind and they were able to flips and spins on the water that I would never have a chance of being able to do. So all in all, not a whole lot different to what you would do a “normal” camp, yet I still got perk number one which is ADDITIONAL PAY. That’s right…. when working on a special needs you get paid more than you would at other camps no matter where it falls on the spectrum.

However, I don’t want to dissuade people or put people off from working the severely disabled. Because in year 3 and 4 I went from one end of the spectrum all the way to the other to about as difficult and challenging it can get. And I absolutely loved it. In my third year at camp, I went to a camp called Florida Lions Camp which was the only camp in the state that had a policy where it would never turn away a camper no matter the need. I did it all. I changed diapers, I was bitten, I had faeces thrown at my head, I was even wedgied by a camper. Was it challenging? Of course, it was, but it was still the best summer at camp that I have ever had. The reason for this is perk number 2 to working at a special needs camp. This is the most challenging it gets, the more you have to work together and rely on the people you are working with. And with this, the relationships you develop are much much stronger and the friendships all the more lasting. I have stayed in touch with the people I worked with during my third year at camp far more than at any other camp I have worked. I have travelled with them on month road trips across America, met up and partied in Sydney Australia, and been chauffeured driven across the Northern Island of New Zealand. Ask any special needs counsellor and they will tell you exactly the same.

And last but not least perk number 3. And the one you would undoubtedly expect to hear. The work you do is rewarding on a scale I have never experienced anywhere else. It is difficult to comprehend the impact you have on the lives of the campers you work with. Quite often that one week at camp is the absolute highlight of that individual year and they really do treasure It and the campers and staff they meet. I still get birthday cards and Christmas cards from campers I worked with in 2008. You don’t get that anywhere and the perspective it gives you on life moving forward is life changing.

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