I celebrated my fourth birthday at sleepaway camp. While this may sound like the result of questionable parenting, there were valid reasons behind my parents’ decision to send me that young.
My father was a busy physician who could not leave New York City over the summer. My mother worked with him at his office. And I couldn’t stand the scorching city heat.
Fortunately, my older brother, who was 5½, went with me. Apparently, as I sat on the bus crying, he got off and told my mother that she should take me home and he would go alone. What a guy. While I don’t have any memories of that first camp experience, I’m told that I actually looked forward to going back.
By the 1950s, my brother and I were attending Camp Northwood, a mainstream camp for all ages in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. At Northwood, there was a strong emphasis on sports, one of the few areas I excelled at.
Due to my significant learning and thinking differences, school had been a negative and humiliating experience. I was in all the lowest academic groups. I was called “stupid,” “lazy,” even “retarded” by classmates and teachers.
All that was replaced at Camp Northwood. I was the first one picked for sports teams and leads in bunk skits. I was asked to dance by cute girls. Camp became an “oasis” of success.
So it’s no surprise that I kept going to Northwood each year. I even went to pre-camp to escape the city heat and to provide free labor, helping set up for the summer.
In the summer after my sophomore year in high school, I was setting up the ball field, when the camp owner came to me. He told me that the sports director, who I was going to assist, was not coming and that I was the new athletic director. In fact, for the first time in my life, I was going to get paid: $100. Status and pay—what a self-image boost!
Many years later, I found myself teaching at the Churchill School in New York City for children with learning disabilities. I’d fallen in love with the school, its population and its mission. I’d also fallen for a first-year teacher named Kristy Baxter, who went on to become my wife, partner and ultimately, head of the school.
It was at Churchill that I noticed that many of the students who went to sleepaway camp came back in worse shape. If they went to mainstream camps, they were often victimized and isolated. If they went to a “specialized” camp, they were often placed with kids with more significant issues. Often, they came back with new behavioral problems and confusion about who they were.
Since I felt summer camp could do so much for kids, Kristy and I decided to create one specifically for children with learning and thinking differences. The concept was to have mainstream activities, supported by a professional staff. We insisted on a 2-to-1 camper-staff ratio. We also added academic reinforcement and social skills programs.
Naturally, I went back to my “oasis,” which was available for lease. And Camp Northwood for children with learning and thinking differences was born. The first year we had 21 full-time campers. By the third year, we had 120 campers and a long waiting list.
After 20 years, I passed stewardship of the camp to one of my counselors, Gordie Felt, and the camp is still successful today. Kristy and I founded six camps in total, many of which still run.
While I’m a firm believer in the potential of sleepaway camp, no one program is right for every child. Nor is there one particular age when every camper should start.
But no matter the child, there are some tried-and-true strategies for being a great camp parent:
- Research and visit potential camps.
- Contact the board of health to find out about any violations the camp may have.
- Get backgrounds on staff members who will be working with your child.
- Write a letter to your child every day, and send one before the start of camp so that it’s waiting for your child when he arrives.
- When sending packages, make sure they contain things that can be shared with bunkmates.
- Make sure your child knows he’s being sent to camp, not away from home.
- Practice using camp vocabulary and eating camp food before your child leaves for camp.
- Don’t send expensive clothes or toys to camp, but make sure your child has all the appropriate clothes and gear he will need.
- When possible, attend day camp first.
- Don’t send dramatic news to your child without first discussing it with the camp director.
- Reinforce with your child that life at home will be the same when he returns.
- If your child sends bad news, check with the director to make sure it’s accurate. If it is, discuss strategies to deal with the situation.
- Don’t plan special events or trips while your child will be away.
- Realize it is OK for you to enjoy the break as much as your child does.
When summer camp is a good fit, it can be a place where kids with learning and thinking differences can find success—just like I did.
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About the author
Jim Rein, MA has lectured on postsecondary options and summer programs for kids and young adults with learning and thinking differences.