‘It is easy to forget some of the simple things that bring people happiness in life’

Laura Wintour on her experience at Camp America

The field of psychology, and in particular clinical psychology, is tough to get into. This was drilled into me from a young age. During my undergraduate degree I tried to get as much clinically relevant experience as I possibly could, to give myself the best shot at a job on graduation and a place on that elusive Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Looking back, the experience I learned the most from, and that I still use regularly in my work as an Assistant Psychologist, is working at a residential camp for children and adults with special needs through Camp America.

Applying

The application process for Camp America is all online. There are various companies you can sign up through, including ‘Camp Leaders’, ‘Camp America’ and ‘USA Summer Camp’. I signed up through Camp Leaders, completing an online form with my details, a personal statement, some information about skills and previous work experience. There is also an option to make a short (couple of minutes) YouTube video to really sell yourself – I opted to do this, to make my application stand out. You then have an interview with a Camp America representative to assess your suitability, and you’ll be able to show off why you’d be a good camp counsellor. You then have to get all the relevant documents ready before your application can be released to potential camps for them to decide if you would be a suitable fit.

You can choose to have your details released to all camps, or specify your preference to be placed in a special needs camp. I actually contacted some camps I was interested in directly: they could then choose to look at my application through Camp Leaders. I don’t think everyone does this, but I think it is worth doing to increase your chances of being placed in a camp.

I was then invited for two interviews on Skype at two different special needs camps. I think it was helpful that I had some previous experience working with children. I had volunteered for a week in a special needs school, for example, and I spoke about what I had learned. Having said that, I think the main things that the camp directors are looking for in the Skype interview is personality, and someone who is enthusiastic and caring. Lots of people I worked with at camp didn’t have any experience with children with special needs… it’s clearly not a necessity, but it probably does help your application.

Having been placed in a camp you will need to book flights, pay for and attend a visa meeting in London, and compete other relevant documentation such as health checks. Altogether, including flights, it cost me around £1,200 for the entire process. You are usually paid around $1000 by camps for the time you are there, which is about 10-12 weeks.

What will you be doing?

Although each camp is different, in general each one has ‘Camp Counsellors’ doing similar things and following similar schedules. You are usually responsible for one or several individuals for the duration of camp. At special needs camps, the abilities and difficulties that children and adults experience varies greatly, from those with high functioning autism to those who have cerebral palsy and are wheelchair bound. How many you’ll be responsible for depends on the extent of their difficulties.

I was in a ‘bunk’ with women over the age of 18 with difficulties ranging from autism to those with regular seizures, selective mutism and obsessive compulsive disorder. There were eight campers at any one time, some stayed for the entire nine weeks and others came and went for a couple of weeks at a time. I worked alongside four other camp counsellors and we shared the responsibilities.

A typical day started around 7:30am to get all campers up and ready for the day. We then all came together in the middle of camp to get a briefing and sing the camp song to get spirits high for the day! This was followed by breakfast and then there were five different activities as well as lunch and dinner, followed by an evening activity. We were responsible for daily care duties, attending fun activities with the campers and ensuring all their needs were met. The activities included swimming, horse-riding, walking, art, reading and writing, and in the evening included camp fires, discos and film nights. The days were very busy and most of the time counsellors were ‘off duty’ by 8pm where they could do whatever they liked for the rest of the night. Camp counsellors had a rota of who would have to stay in on particular nights and be on duty through the night to deal with any problems that might arise.

I was at the camp for 10 weeks but in the first week there were no campers: it’s a chance for camp counsellors to get to know each other, what they would be doing and gain some essential skills. We were taught about each of the programmes so that we could prepare the children and adults for what to expect. We also had the opportunity to think of some different activities that we could do with them. We were told about each of the ‘bunks’ and the kind of children and adults who would be in it, so that we could decide where we would prefer to be. Bunks were organised depending on gender, age and abilities. Some bunks had all girls with high functioning autism in them, whereas others had younger children with more complex needs who needed 1:1 care. We were also taught about tactics to cope with and manage behavioural difficulties and also how to defend ourselves should the need arise with the more difficult adults. This week was really helpful in terms of building our confidence for when the campers arrive.

I chose to be with women who were aged between 18 and 55. There were eight of them altogether at any one time, but some were there for the entire time and others for only a couple of weeks. One individual who I had most of the time on 1:1 care had autism as well as other problems including speech abnormalities, severe learning difficulties and behavioural problems. It was quite difficult to engage her in activities and it was rare if she could focus on one activity for more than ten minutes, so I had to constantly be thinking of ways to keep her attention. She was able to carry out most self-care activities herself, such as showering and getting dressed, but she did need prompting and also needed regular medicating. One of the things that helped her to relax and minimised her behavioural difficulties (which was mainly aggression) was swimming. I therefore tried to introduce swimming to her day as much as possible and use it as an incentive to get her through other necessary activities.

What did I learn?

Sometimes when working in mental health services it is easy to forget some of the simple things that bring people happiness in life and could be integral to their recovery. I was reminded of this during camp where for the ten weeks, although I felt I was mainly just having fun with the campers, they were able to take a lot from it. I found it invaluable to learn how such activities, which also included gardening and swimming, could have such a positive impact. This encouraged me to recommend activities to patients that may help them alongside therapy, for example horse-riding has been documented as very beneficial for children and adults with autism.

During university you learn about lots of conditions such as autism and obsessive compulsive disorder, but you rarely get the opportunity to live with people who have these difficulties for a prolonged period of time, and that was one of the many benefits of Camp America. In addition, prior to the campers arriving we had a one-week induction which included helpful learning opportunities such as behavioural management and psychoeducation.

Working with these individuals allowed me to discover aspects of conditions that can be impairing for people and what they need more help with, and I am therefore better at spotting the traits and symptoms when it comes to actual diagnoses. Importantly, I also realised how much they are capable of, and how important it is not to ‘judge a book by its cover’. Though many of the campers had significant difficulties, they also all had major strengths in certain areas. I was able to set goals with these individuals which were both achievable yet challenging, and this is a skill that is integral now when setting Goal Based Outcomes (GBOs) in my work.

In addition, I now feel I have more empathy when working with families because I have an idea how difficult it can be to look after someone with special needs all of the time. Without the experience at camp, I wouldn’t have understood how difficult it really can be. This is something that really benefits me in my work now. Equally I now understand how rewarding and eye opening it can be to look after someone with special needs, and all the joys that come along with the challenges. Furthermore, I was able to try out behavioural techniques with the individuals and be able to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and learn from these interactions.

Another invaluable skill I was able to develop is team work, which has only got more important as I have started to embark on a psychology career in multi-disciplinary teams. Working at the camp was sometimes a stressful and emotional environment, particularly when working with some campers who needed 1:1 assistance and who had significant behavioural difficulties. Being able to work as a team, support one another when we were struggling, and build on each others’ strengths was extremely important.

Finally, some campers were non-verbal, which meant I needed to use alternative communicative skills which I had not used before. I learned how to be descriptive with gestures and work with individuals to work out the best way that we can communicate together. I find now that when working with people with learning difficulties I am able to draw on these abilities to use gestures, facial expressions, eye contact and body language to communicate more effectively.

Final comments

I hope I’ve encourage people to consider doing Camp America for a summer in order to gain some vital skills, which may help others as much as it has helped me. I’ve listed just some of the benefits and skills here: all in all, I regularly find in my work now that I am drawing knowledge from my experience at camp. 

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