Last week I got to go to camp—swimming, crafts, songs, snacks, giggles, fun; it was all there. I wasn’t actually attending camp; I was observing camp—Aaron’s Acres, to be exact.
Aaron’s Acres is a unique day camp. It was created because one woman—Risa Paskoff—responded to a mom’s letter to the editor. The mom was disheartened that her child with disabilities would never know all of the fun of summer camp, because none was open to him. Risa went on to create a camp for Aaron, one that now serves hundreds of kids in Lancaster, Berks and Dauphin counties in Pennsylvania who have physical, mental, emotional or behavioral disabilities. Aaron’s Acres prides itself on never having turned away a child because his or her disabilities are too severe. They simply find a way to make it work.
As I watched camp that day and talked to Risa and some of the board and the camp director, I learned several things that can help us encourage children dealing with limitations:
- Recognize that they’re still kids. Aaron’s Acres works to give kids with disabilities all the true experiences typical kids get. It’s wonderful to see them be kids. I saw it this summer as well at our church’s vacation Bible school. A little girl who used a walker showed up, no preregistration, no heads-up from the mom; they arrived late, in fact. Our church isn’t handicapped accessible, but I watched individuals jump in to make accommodations so she was included in everything. Her mom thought she’d only be there one evening, but she returned because she begged her mom to bring her because she had fun.
- Befriend them. Aaron’s Acres has professional staff to be with each child, trained teachers or therapists. But I loved watching the buddies. Buddies are middle or high school volunteers who hang out with a camper during camp. The buddies were in the water playing with the kids, dancing with them, doing crafts, being a friend. I heard stories of how it extended into the schools with buddies helping their other friends recognize the worth of kids with disabilities.
- Learn what they need. The Aaron’s Acres buddies go through a thorough orientation in which they learn not just important skills but also specifics about the child they will be a buddy to. Is the child a runner? What are his fears? What does she have difficulties doing? They learn so that they can be a better buddy to that child.
- Give their parents a break. The day I was at Aaron’s Acres, a group from a beauty school was there as well to give moms a manicure, pedicure or makeover if they were interested. Each day they offered something: a class on a subject of interest, yoga, massage, or something else to support the parents. There was no pressure to attend; sometimes parents are best served by having a morning or day free from responsibility to do whatever they want, with no worries about their kids.
- Allow them to give back. The older kids who attend Aaron’s Acres in the afternoon become part of an Acts of Kindness program in which they have the opportunity to serve others. They might do clean up work at a nonprofit or visit with people in a nursing home. (You can read about Acts of Kindness in the Lancaster Sunday News.) Their buddies go with them; they volunteer together. It allows kids to recognize their own ability to help someone else, rather than always being the recipient of help.
There are kids with limitations in your church or synagogue, your child’s school or club. How do you (or could you) help them be kids? Have you talked to their parents about their needs and fears? Are you encouraging your kids to befriend them , not just ignore them or feel sorry for them? How are you offering their parents a break? And how are you helping these children and their parents serve others so they can experience the joy of giving? I’d love to hear your ideas.
And if you know a family that could benefit from Aaron’s Acres, let them know. Camp registration begins in January, but fills up quickly. And they offer school-year programs as well that may be beneficial. Your encouragement might be just what that family needs.