Empowerment and Inclusion at Summer Camp

By Jessica Meirovici 
Social Connectedness Fellow

Summer is here and hundreds, if not thousands, of Montreal’s youth are at their favourite summer destination: camp! Today, there are many camps that cater to different interests, ranging from drama and art to sports. However, for children with different abilities and needs, there are still a number of barriers to participation.

In the late 1960s, Eunice Kennedy Shriver started a camp for children with intellectual disabilities at her family farm in Maryland, providing them a “typical camp experience” for the first time.[i] In doing so, she opened her home and her heart to children who were institutionalized, mistreated and often neglected.

Shriver’s action was unconventional for the time because, back then, society still regarded people with disabilities as lacking value and potential. However, she strongly believed in equality of opportunity for every child and that it was time to force a shift in traditional thinking.[ii] This marked the beginning of the story of Special Olympics International.

Today, Special Olympics carries out inclusive programing around the world aimed at benefitting children with and without intellectual disabilities. James Lapierre, Director of Sports Programs and Community Development for Special Olympics Quebec, says the goal of these programs is to allow “children with intellectual disabilities [to] have the opportunity to participate and be a part of something regular.”[iii]

Similarly, YMCA Quebec offers inclusive summer programming in Montreal. The organization believes that “inclusion means welcoming everyone regardless of who they are, where they come from, and what their abilities are.”[iv]

Beth Jersey, Assistant Director of the Inclusion Sector, is responsible for ensuring that everything from the application process to day-to-day activities is both equitable and inclusive. In a recent interview, Beth explained that not only do their camps have integration specialists, they also provide companions known as ‘shadows’[v] who are paired up with children that require extra help navigating camp life. Every child is different, and requires different tools and support in order to thrive in a camp environment, she said.

If a child with a special need actively participates in an activity with his or her peers for an hour a day, YMCA Quebec camp staff view it as a successful step towards building social connectedness. Meanwhile, children without disabilities are also affected, as they grow to become more sensitive to, and accepting of, others’ differences.

There are several ways you can get involved in helping to promote inclusive summer camp programming. First, you can support a camp by donating funds. Also, if you’re planning to work at a summer camp, opt to work at an inclusive one. Finally, if you are working at a camp that does not have an inclusive mandate, speak with your camp director about the potential benefits of making the camp more inclusive. After all, the first staff that volunteered to work at Camp Shriver were part of the inclusive revolution, and you could be too.

For more information on the YMCA’s inclusive summer camp program, you can visit their website. You can also learn more about Special Olympics International by visiting specialolympics.org.

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[i] Camp Shriver the Beginning of a Movement. 2017. Retrieved from http://www.specialolympics.org/Sections/What_We_Do/Camp_Shriver_Background.aspx

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] J. Lapierre. personal communication, June 16, 2017.

[iv] Inclusion Program. Retrieved from http://www.ymcaquebec.org/en/Find-a-Y/Day-Camps/Inclusion-Program

[v] A shadow is a person who works one on one with a child who requires additional support. Sometimes, a shadow is paired to a child with special needs or a disability. However, not every child with a disability or behavioral issue needs a shadow.