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Volunteer At Summer Camp for Children with Special Needs

by Beth Hering
The Challenge

For a child with special needs, summer can be just another time to feel out of place: a boy who uses a wheelchair getting discouraged that his community pool lacks the staff and equipment needed for him to enjoy the water; a girl with a developmental disability wanting to quit her art class because it moves too quickly for her; a child who has undergone chemotherapy afraid to join a soccer team for fear that others will laugh at his bald head.

Camps specifically designed for children with special needs can solve many of these problems. Staff can take into account the physical, emotional, and social skills of the children with special needs. Perhaps best of all, children with special needs can be around peers in similar situations. Nobody feels like an outsider.

Many of these camps are offered free or at a low cost — a welcome respite for families that are often being taxed to their financial limits with medical bills and other expenses. But to give each child with special needs the attention he or she requires to have a safe, enjoyable, and positive experience, camps must have a sufficient staff. While camps for children with special needs employ workers, they also depend on volunteers to keep adult-to-child ratios low and to keep costs down.

The good news is that becoming a volunteer at a camp for children with special needs is something virtually anyone can do. At most camps, training is provided, so no prior experience is necessary. All that is required is a desire to help children with special needs learn new things, feel good about themselves, and have fun. Though camp may only last a week or two, the memories created for both the children with special needs and the adults who volunteer to help them will last a lifetime.

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  • The Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) conducts summer camps for special needs children affected by neuromuscular disease. Camp activities can include sports, arts and crafts, talent shows, and cookouts. Volunteers give both physical and emotional support to their camper, and training includes wheelchair techniques, lifting and transfers, personal hygiene, and emergency procedures. Camp dates and locations can be obtained from your local MDA representative.
  • Easter Seals camps serve people with physical or cognitive disabilities. Activities at these camps for children with special needs range from nature studies and aquatics to adventures such as canoeing and rock climbing. To learn about locations and volunteer opportunities, contact one of the many camp locations and ask to speak to the camp director.
  • Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times offers activities to kids and teens who have or have had cancer. The camp is located in the pine-filled valleys of the San Jacinto Mountains in Southern California. Volunteers are asked to commit for one nine-day session, including two days of on-site staff training and orientation.
  • Camp Ronald McDonald at Eagle Lake provides traditional camping activities for children with physical, emotional, developmental, or medical needs. The camp is located in Northern California on the shores of Eagle Lake in the middle of Lassen National Forest.
  • The website http://www.kidscamps.com/specialneeds-camps.camp allows you to search for camps serving children with particular special needs, such as camps for children with visual impairment, camps for children who have suffered burns, and camps for children with developmental disabilities. After clicking on the special-needs area of interest, you can click on a state to view camps in that region.

Alternatively, you can search for volunteer counselor opportunities based on the special-need served by the camp:

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