“The week we send Cassidy to camp every summer really is the highlight of the year. We start looking forward to it in March when the applications first come out,” says Gina Duncan, mom to 24-year old Cassidy, who has autism and has been going to camp since she was 8 years old.
The first year Cassidy’s family dropped her off at camp, they sat in a restaurant about twenty minutes away, waiting hours for a phone call they thought was going to eventually come asking them to come pick up Cassidy, but it never did.
“Mostly my mom thought I was going to get homesick my first night there,” says Cassidy. “I was a little bit of afraid to stay away from my family, but I eventually learned to cope by writing letters. I got the letter writing idea from a counsellor of mine. She said the best way to get rid of being homesick was to write down everything I did each day and it would be just like writing to my parents.”
Cassidy had never been away from home before Easter Seals. She never had the opportunity to go to any other regular overnight camps – camps for children without diverse abilities.
“We had had a lot of barriers getting into regular camps,” says Gina. “We thought Cassidy would never have a camp experience, something I think is so important for any child growing up. One of my favourite memories is picking Cassidy up at the end of her first week that first year and she looked like she hadn’t showered in a week, but she had! She looked like any other child returning home from a week away at camp.”
“Mom do we really have to talk about that?” Cassidy says laughing.
Easter Seals campers are no different than typical kids going to camp. Just like everyone else they go to camp and have fun. They’re just kids and young adults enjoying each other, supporting each other, and teaching everyone around them, including the counsellors, about what true friendship means. Nobody makes fun of anybody else. It’s a place for inclusion and acceptance.
“It’s what summer should look like for every kid,” says Gina. “They just want a chance to be themselves without anyone judging them and making assumptions about them. At camp they don’t worry about anything. They just have fun and a big part of why that is, is because of the counsellors.”
The ratio to campers and counsellors at Easter Seals camps is 3:1. Something you can’t find anywhere else.
“Camp counsellors are absolutely incredible,” says Gina. “What they give to the kids and what the kids give back to them really shapes our kids views of life, of participation and of joy. We know that for the entire week, our kids are safe and well taken care of. In some typical environments where kids go to camp there is some bullying, but that doesn’t happen here.”
Relationships with counsellors sometimes extend beyond the summer. Emails are exchanged, counsellors go back to their lives, and the next summer, many counsellors are back.
“How great is it for a parent to drop off their camper and have the counsellor assigned to them run up so excited your child is going to be in their group,” says Gina. “Instead of concern, or barriers which often occurs in our children’s regular lives, the counsellors are so sincere, welcoming and inviting. This has such a positive impact on the parents and the children.”
“The counsellors are a lot of fun. They joke around. They give you support. They’re basically like your friend or that fun aunt who comes to visit,” says Cassidy.
And for parents like Gina, it’s also a week that allows them to take time for themselves.
“For us as parents, it’s a week that we miss our kids, but it also gives us time to rejuvenate, so we can have more fight in us for the challenges that lay ahead,” says Gina. “As much as Cassidy needs the week, so do we.”
And Cassidy’s favourite part of camp?
“My favourite part is making new connections and new friends I hadn’t met before,” says Cassidy. “And the food and the games!”
“These camps need to go on. These camps for our children are life changing,” says Gina. “It teaches them kindness, compassion, support of one another and not to be afraid. To be able to go out in the world and be themselves. That is the most important thing. Nobody places any expectations on them and they just shine. It’s those experiences that come home and shape them, giving them the tools to help them with their day to day life challenges.”