Making Camp Accessible
Tips for Making Camp Accessible for Special Needs Children
Each year, our church takes elementary-aged students to camp; we take children once during the summer for a week-long adventure and once more during the winter for a weekend experience in the snowy mountains near where we live.
I believe in taking kids to camp. There’s something about unplugging from the busyness of life and spending intentional time on faith development that I can’t put a price tag on. I’ve seen the lives of children and families transformed through the ministry that takes place at Christian camp centers. I have one moment in my own life that I can look back on where I felt like God was whispering to my soul. That moment took place in a quiet prayer chapel at a Christian camp. For me, that was the beginning of my journey into ministry. God can start things in the lives of kids at camp that can change the world around them. I firmly believe in that.
However, going into this year’s winter camp, our team was faced with a dilemma. Our ministry to special needs children is growing at our church and a handful of those students wanted to attend camp with us this year. Though we were thrilled at the idea of bringing these children to camp, we knew that good intentions were not going to be enough to create a safe camp experience for these potential campers.
Today, I want to share three essential things you would need to do in order to take special needs kids to camp. If camp is something you believe in, then it should be something that children with special needs have an option to attend – it just takes some extra work.
Have a Plan
If you have children with special needs in your ministry, you are probably familiar with the idea of Individualized Educational Program (IEP, for short). As a church, we try to develop an IEP for each child in our ministry who we identify as having a special need. Our IEPs vary in their formality – if a parent approaches us in hopes of establishing a partnership, the plan we develop will be more involved and specific than the plan we draft for a child whose behavior warrants special attention but whose parents might not be willing to talk about the issue in terms of drafting an IEP.
Because camp is away from home and routines, we require a consultation between the parents of special need campers and our special needs ministry team – children whose parents are not willing to have those conversations are not ready for camp. Good intentions won’t help you or your camper when you’re dealing with needs you weren’t prepared for. You won’t be able to coach your volunteers well if you haven’t established a plan for making camp work for your special needs camper – if you want to bring a child to camp with special needs, you need to have a plan.
Think About the Details
Part of having a plan in place is thinking through the details. I’ll be honest, without the partnership from the camp that we take our kids to, having details and plans in place wouldn’t be something that we could pull off on our own. If you plan on taking kids to camp, thinking about the details should include:
- Ask for each day’s schedule from the camp center
- Bringing ear plugs for children who are sensitive to sound
- Have a structured plan for special needs children who cannot handle unstructured time
- Have a plan for the routine of bed time and ask parents about special considerations (bed wetting, sleep walking, night terrors, comfort items, etc.)
- Make sure the camping site is 100% accessible for your camper
By no means is that an exhaustive list, but it should get your team started when it comes to brainstorming what details you need to have in place for camp to be accessible to all of the children in your ministry.
“No” is always an option
One of the neatest moments in having special needs campers with us this last winter camp came when a mom came to pick up her son at the end of the weekend. She told me, through tears, how moved she was that we were able to take her son to camp. He had never stayed the night anywhere away from his family until that weekend. She went on to tell me that she felt like she could send him with me because I’ve become a part of their family over the years of being the Church together.
With that in mind, I want you to know that there have been times when we had to tell this family, “no.” We haven’t always been a ministry that could give this young boy full access to all of our events. During the first years of revamping our VBS, we could not accommodate his needs. Until this year of camp, he has not had the chance to head up the mountain with our team. However, those moments of saying “no” and explaining our reasons to this family earned us the ability to one day say “yes”… and mean it. By always putting her son’s safety and well-being first, we earned the right to finally say “yes” and give her son an experience away from home to connect with his Creator.
And, to save the best news for last, this young boy decided to give his life to Jesus at camp. Heaven got a little bigger because of the hard work our special needs team put into making camp accessible. That moment made all of the hard work worth it.
Without a plan, working out the details and only saying yes when we were actually ready to make camp a great experience for our special needs campers, things might not have gone as smoothly as they did. As those who follow Jesus’ call to “let the children come to [Him]”, we have a great responsibility to provide care for all children – even those with special needs.
If you have anything to add to this conversation, feel free to do so in the comments section. We look forward to the addition of your thoughts and perspective.