Running a summer camp for children with learning disabilities, ADHD, and high functioning ASD means that every summer I meet survivors—kids who have endured the academic and social pressures of school and who still had the courage to leave their homes and their support systems to try to have a wonderful and life-changing summer at camp. A former camper (and current counsellor) recently told me that he dropped out of grade 6 because his school district could not manage to program effectively for an eleven-year-old with ADHD and autism. To meet this bright, confident university student now, you would never guess that his was a story of struggle. He, like many of our other current and alumni campers, credit Camp Kodiak with helping to change how he saw himself—disabilities and all—and how he saw his path forward into adulthood. I would like to tell you his story.
In 2007 we got an inquiry from a family in the United States about sending their son to Camp Kodiak. Michael was almost 11 years old, in grade 5, and was mainstreamed at school, spending 80% of his time in a regular classroom and 20% in the school’s learning center. Michael was described by his mother as “easy” and “charming” with adults but “nervous [with children] from having been rejected so often”. He had two friends at home and had attended day camp for several years, but he had experienced teasing there, which caused the experience to be somewhat challenging. His parents wanted camp to “boost [his] self-esteem [and] show Michael he can succeed”. Michael was excited about the prospect of attending Camp Kodiak: “Forget the Disney Cruise. I want this camp.”
That first summer at camp went well for Michael and set the stage for a long-term relationship with Michael and his family. An email from his mother after he arrived home read: “Who is that boy who flew home … from Camp Kodiak last night? That tall, tan, calm, self-possessed boy? It was my boy, Michael Teener. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Hooray for Camp Kodiak.”
Despite a successful summer, Michael had more challenges to face at school in the fall, and things were not going well. We received a letter from Michael’s father in March 2008 asking us for a staff manual or other documents that we could share with the school and district to teach them know how to support Michael in his academics and social skills because his year had been going so poorly and he had lost so much ground. On that year’s application, it said that Michael did not have any friends at home, and his parents’ only goal for camp was for him to make a friend. Unfortunately, there was no magic PDF we could send along to help Michael at school. As Dave Stoch (our founder) replied at the time, “We don’t have the type of manuals that would be helpful to you. We train our staff to ensure that our campers are safe, physically and emotionally. We supervise our kids 24 hours per day. We structure all of our activities to ensure that our kids experience lots of success in lots of different areas and we try to recognize and celebrate all of their successes.” In short, it is not a specific strategy or method that works; it is Camp Kodiak’s approach to seeing kids as whole people rather than as a collection of problems to be fixed.
Michael came back to camp year after year, and by the time he was 16 years old and participating in our Leader-In-Training program, he demonstrated such confidence, leadership, and initiative that we started looking at him as a potential counsellor some day. Michael excelled as a Leader-In-Training and as a Junior Counsellor, and in 2015 he joined our staff as a counsellor. His mother wrote us an email the day she found out he had been offered a job. “I had a swell of emotion, knowing where he’s come from and the challenges on the journey.”
Michael still works at Camp Kodiak. He is a very valued counsellor partly because he can teach waterskiing, sailing, horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, and so many other activities. Mostly, though, his work stands out because of his talent in working with our kids. He knows how to make connections and build relationships even with those campers who shy away from adults; he looks for and acknowledges all of the sparks and gifts that our campers have, even when most people would focus on their challenges; he is smart and creative, and he works with others and asks for help when figuring out how to best work with a camper is not immediately apparent. As a camp director, I know that if I need something done, I can count on Michael. More importantly, though, I know that if I need someone to pay extra attention and work a bit harder with a camper, I can count on Michael for that, too.
In response to a question about what people learned at Camp Kodiak, Michael responded:
“I learned … how to make and keep friends. I learned to have confidence in myself and my abilities. I learned how to sail, kneeboard and overcome my fear of heights. I learned that it’s okay to be wrong and how to take my failures in stride. I’m influenced daily by what I’ve learned; I’m glad that I’m able to keep going and learning.”
--Shari Stoch, Director of Camp Kodiak
About Camp Kodiak
Camp Kodiak is an integrated, non-competitive camp for children and teens with and without learning disabilities, ADHD, and high-functioning autism spectrum disorder. We provide a SOCIAL SKILLS PROGRAM, ACADEMIC PROGRAM, and over 50 SPORTS and ACTIVITIES. Our staff includes many educators, social workers, and child & youth workers. We have a 2-to-1 camper-to-staff ratio. Our comfortable lakefront cabins are equipped with a full bathroom and shower, and electricity. Camp Kodiak is situated on 425 beautiful acres with 4 kilometres of lakefront. We focus on fun, friends, and success!
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