“When we first started, people told me, ‘You can’t do inclusion right away, you should ease into it’,” says Jolanda Campbell, Executive Director of the Greenwell Foundation in Hollywood, Maryland. Her response: “Sure we can—and we will!” Five years later, Jolanda explains that if you start a camp where all children are welcome, then inclusion becomes the norm.
The Greenwell Foundation is one of five locations participating in a “Summer Learning for All” initiative being organized jointly by the National Inclusion Project and the Johns Hopkins University National Center for Summer Learning. The project, being funded in part by the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, is designed to create an inclusion curriculum, which summer camps nationwide can use to create inclusive environments for children of all abilities.
“Inclusion is an attitude,” continues Jolanda: “We don’t have staff with a lot of formal training in special education. We don’t have an ‘inclusion specialist’ who evaluates the children and decides what they can and can’t do. We don’t have ‘special programs’ for children with disabilities. We simply train our college-aged staff to be welcoming and supportive of all children. We make adaptations to the program, environment or equipment, so all can participate. We have higher-than-average staff to child ratios so they can work individually with children when required. We also have staff who were campers themselves—campers with and without disabilities—who know the culture of the camp and are adaptable.
“In training the staff, we practice scenarios that may come up, but the most important thing we teach them is not to overreact, and that they are responsible for dealing with any issues that may arise. Amazingly, these young adults find solutions. Even more amazingly, this accepting, adaptive attitude is transferred to the kids in the camp [aged 5-13], and they learn to adjust and develop their own problem-solving skills—often better and quicker than an adult might. This is what is meant by inclusion.”
The Greenwell Foundation organizes camp programming at Greenwell State Park. Since its inception, the camp has always worked to create an inclusive environment. The children who attend may have physical, sensory, cognitive, emotional, and/or learning disabilities. The biggest challenge for camps is not usually physical adaptations—although at some understaffed camps, kids with physical or learning disabilities might not be fully integrated into activities. The most formidable challenge is accommodating children who have behavioral issues—tantrums, hitting, biting—which may threaten other children’s safety. These issues can and do occur at Camp Greenwell.
“Often,” reports Jolanda, “parents of children with behavioral issues come to Camp Greenwell after having been turned away from other camps. If a situation does arise, when I call a parent to report it, they expect me to tell them their child isn’t welcome at camp anymore. But this is not our approach. Instead we work together to find a solution to maintain a safe environment for all—and we have always found a way. A high staff to child ratio is the key.”
Social interaction is another key ingredient to a successful inclusion program. Jolanda says, “I can’t tell you how often a parent will drop off their child at camp and say, ‘My child is nonverbal and doesn’t play with other children.’ In nearly every case, by the end of the day, that same child is interacting and playing with their peers and the parent is astonished. Of course, camp may be the first time the child has ever really had an opportunity to interact with others when mom or dad wasn’t around—and sitting on the sidelines is just not an option at Camp Greenwell.
“Some children have even said their first word at camp, usually ‘hi.’ And ‘hi’ is all it takes to get kids with—and without—disabilities onto a path where all can be socially engaged, involved and included.
“Inclusion is simply belonging,” concludes Jolanda.
For more information, visit www.IncludingAllKids.org.