Summer camp is supposed to be fun for kids – a chance to kick back, maybe learn a few new skills and make some friends.
But could it also make your child a kinder, more thoughtful and empathetic person?
Could it help a child with special needs improve their language and socialization skills?
These sound like lofty goals, but the Inclusion Camp at Friendship Circle could do all of that for kids with special needs and those who are neurotypical.
The West Bloomfield nonprofit, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, was founded on one simple yet beautiful dream: to provide people with special needs true friendships and a community to call their own.
“The value of having a friend, of connection and community, is so important,” says Erin Berry, program manager of Friendship Circle. “Friendship Circle is all about community. How do we work together to help each other?”
That philosophy is now even more present in the organization’s day camp, which runs 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday for eight weeks during the summer. Starting this year, ALL kids ages 5-13 can enjoy the classic camp experience with trips to places like the Troy Aquatic Park and Kensington Metropark Farm Center and activities like crafts, music and yoga. Since the camp will now be open to both children with special needs and neurotypical kids, the added benefit is that all children get some important lessons along the way.
“It’s good for all kids,” says Sarah Rosenzweig of West Bloomfield, whose 8-year-old daughter, Ellah, has attended Friendship Circle’s camp for kids with special needs for the past three years and will attend this year’s Inclusion Camp. “(Neurotypical) kids aren’t always exposed to kids with special needs. This is a chance for them to learn how to interact with people who may have challenges they don’t. For example, my daughter may have issues, but you don’t have to talk to her like she’s a baby. That’s something someone learns.”
On the flipside, Rosenzweig welcomes her daughter learning from the neurotypical kids who join her at camp this summer.
“It’s important for her growth to interact with peers of all abilities. It will help her with her emerging language skills and help push her to try new things this summer.”
Ellah’s 10-year-old sister Naamah will join her at Friendship Circle camp this year, giving the siblings a shared summer memory.
Berry says that beyond the inclusion component of the camp, Friendship Circle’s summer camp experience is just plain fun.
“We run an awesome camp,” Berry says. “We do all of the typical things you’d expect at camp – the trips, the crafts, the activities. The difference is that we meet the child – no matter their ability – where they are, and help them get the most out of their camp experience.”
Berry says that they scout their field trip locations ahead of time and talk to the staff on hand to ensure they’re prepared for any challenges their campers may face.
“If it’s a loud place, for instance, we’ll scope out spots for students to take a sensory break and we always have headphones on hand,” Berry says.
Having a 1-to-4 staff-to-camper ratio helps them make sure every child is having the best summer experience, she says.
“Our job is to literally learn each individual child and meet his or her needs. We don’t force kids to do things they don’t want to, but we ask them to stretch themselves. And that won’t look the same for every child.”
Rosenzweig says that level of attention to each child is what sets Friendship Circle apart.
“(Ellah) has good days and bad days, but she has a person assigned to her to get her through it,” she says.
Teens ages 13 and older can experience the Friendship Circle camp this summer as well – as volunteers. Berry says they are looking for more teens this year to help out the campers, engage with them during their activities, show kindness and build friendships.
Each teen volunteer is assigned to one or two campers for the day during the morning orientation. Teens can volunteer for one day, one week or all summer.
“We’d love it if they can come for at least a whole week,” says Berry. “But even one day is great for our campers and for them.”
Whether it’s a camper with special needs, a camper who’s neurotypical or a teen camp volunteer, those who attend Friendship Circle’s Inclusion Camp will all have the opportunity to make a connection, grow as a person and have some summer fun along the way.
“Kids realize that even with their differences, they are a lot alike. They like the same things, they want the same things, they have the same needs,” Rosenzweig says about the Friendship Circle experience. “And having more people who realize our shared humanity, that’s going to make this world into the kind of world I want my kids to live in.”
Get more information or register for Friendship Circle’s Inclusion Camp online or by contacting program manager Erin Berry at email@example.com or 248-788-7878, ext. 229.
To sign up to be a teen volunteer, register online or call volunteer coordinator Shelby Lonnerstater at firstname.lastname@example.org or 248-788-7878, ext. 244.