Grab a piece of steel wool. Rub it on the top of your hand every day for a week. That’s how camp feels to some kids. Their brains are scraped raw and on fire. Camp’s not supposed to feel like that! But how can we ease the pain if we don’t know campers are hurting?
Kids are good at keeping secrets. And parents are good at helping them. In 30 years of being a camp counselor, director and volunteer, I’ve probably heard more about bedwetting issues than I have about learning or processing disorders. After all, you can’t hide a wet bed, but you can hide, at least for a short time at camp, other disabilities. When your child begs you to PLEEEEEZE not tell the counselor she doesn’t read well (in fact freaks out if asked to read aloud), it’s hard not to go along. Maybe no one will ever notice.
Then there are the issues parents don’t themselves know, but that can make life at camp difficult. Steve Grcevich’s “Barriers to Inclusion” article discusses hidden disabilities and church life, which inspired me to reflect about camp. Surely with all that outdoor space and low adult-to-camper ratios, we’ve got it covered? Nope. And we’re not totally to blame. Again, secrets. And shame. Often the only clue is the camper doesn’t come back.
We must start the inclusion process before anyone even gets to camp. Address the issue of hidden disabilities openly in your promotional materials and in welcome letters. Parents of these kids are often terrified when they send their child to camp. They are on edge all week wondering how it’s going. Demonstrating right up front that your camp cares and inviting additional data may reassure parents and yield more information. Ask parents specific questions on health forms or forms for counselors. Noise and lights bother your child? Likes to read? Needs an hour of quiet every day to function well? Gets upset when plans change? Anything your child would be embarrassed if other campers knew?
Address the issue with campers and ask the same questions. I had one staff person born with a very small thumb. She used that every week to show how some things are obvious, like her thumb, and some are hidden, but that we’re really all the same. “We want you to tell us what you need to make this week great.” Campers were fascinated. And they were completely open with her, even in large groups, about what made them uncomfortable or what they were afraid people might discover about them.
Teach staff and counselors to be observant and to notice when a camper is uncomfortable. Linguistically-oriented Bible studies are a dreaded part of the day for a child with a reading disability or anxiety disorder. A child with a social communication disorder may find get-acquainted games, especially name games, terrifying. That 13-year-old who always forgets to pack his towel in his shower bag? A child with ADHD or specific learning disorder may truly not remember, even if you reminded the group what to pack. A light hand on his shoulder (if he tolerates touch)may help, or a suggestion that everyone imagine his bag and then each item as you list it. Worship or group singing may overload a child with a sensory processing disorder. Consider providing a designated quiet place at cabins or campsites or in your worship space, where no one can talk to the person in it. That could be a piece of heaven to some campers.
Use training materials that allow counselors to experience life from the perspective of campers. We tend to assume people experience the world like we do, and if someone behaves differently, it’s because of a character flaw – psychologists call this “fundamental attribution error.” We attribute people’s behavior to their character instead of to their situation, in this case how their brain or the rest of the body works. We need training on those hidden disabilities if we’re going to avoid making assumptions. We don’t think someone in a wheelchair is lazy for not running to the dining hall, but just assume a camper is bossy and irritating with her demands that we stick to the schedule, rather than seeing the signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Seek expert help and training from school professionals and mental health professionals who specifically work with children with hidden disabilities. Pull in parents of children with hidden disabilities and let them tell counselors what it’s like from their perspective. Finally, consider adding a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to your camp library. The new version is well organized and easy to read, and can be a great source when a parent shares a diagnosis and staff would benefit from knowing more.
Recently, the 2013 National Camp Executives Gathering discussed ministering to “those in society who many times just get passed by” and the necessity of changing whom we’re reaching as camp and retreat ministries of the United Methodist Church. If we want to move forward in that direction, we need to expand our understanding to actively include campers with hidden disabilities. Dream big.
Jackie Cordon was certified in Camp and Retreat Ministries in the United Methodist Church in 2004 and was a camp and retreat center director in Iowa and New York for 14 years. She is also the parent of four children who did their best to give her experience with hidden disabilities. Currently finishing a master’s degree in clinical counseling, Jackie owns an editing business and serves camp and retreat ministries as a volunteer in the Iowa Conference.