Summers take on a special meaning for 13-year-old Simon Rivard. Because he goes away to boarding school during the year, the seven weeks he spends at Camp Kodiak with his older sister Laurence are the only chance for them to reconnect.
"That's mainly why I like camp — so I can spend a lot of time with her," Simon says.
For Laurence, the time together at the fully integrated camp is even more precious, because it helps her come to terms with her brother's dyslexia and attention deficit disorder.
"Camp Kodiak helps you learn to get along with different children, and you learn a lot about patience," says Laurence, 14. "I like spending time with Simon, and am much more patient with him now."
Spread over 170 hectares just northeast of Parry Sound, Ontario, with about three kilometres of waterfront, Camp Kodiak has developed a reputation as the ultimate special needs summer camp; kids come from as far away as Japan, Korea, Indonesia, the United States and Europe. It's one of a growing number of Ontario and Quebec special needs summer camps.
Kodiak, a residential camp, accommodates mainly children with special needs, as well as a small number of mainstream campers. The 260 campers, age 6 to 18, have access to facilities and programming tailored to their needs, whether it be physical, learning or social handicaps.
Campers are supervised at a ratio of three-to-one — with one in three staffers being a trained professional, such as a social worker or psychologist. A core medical team is always on call.
Campers participate in a range of athletic and creative activities, and also take part in one hour of daily academic training in an area of their choice. Options include chess, web design, jazz dance, martial arts and outdoor survival skills.
But what has meant the most to Simon is the camp's comfortable and non-competitive environment.
"During the school year, it's tough for me," Simon says. "Here, I get away from everything and make friends that I stay in touch with during the year."
After Simon was diagnosed with ADD at age 9, his parents searched throughout North America to find a suitable camp. They finally stumbled onto Camp Kodiak's Web site, and since that first summer, both Simon and Laurence were immediately hooked. "They live the whole year to go to Camp Kodiak," says their mother, Catherine Paquette-Rivard. "It's their point of reference when they think of something fun."
She says Simon has benefited tremendously from the inclusion of mainstream campers.
"He has learned to fit in and has picked up important social cues," she says. "He has also gained confidence and made lots of friends."
Likewise, she has seen Laurence become more patient with her brother.
"She has developed much more tolerance toward him," she says. "She is becoming much more understanding of her brother's personality traits."
David Stoch, Camp Kodiak owner and director, says the goal is to create a supportive, enriched environment where children learn tolerance and have fun.
"For most of these kids, school, athletics and making friends is hard," Stoch says. "We structure things so that kids will win. It's about co-operation, not competition.
"The mainstream kids have as good an experience as the special needs kids," Stoch adds. "We're hoping to improve social skills, confidence and self-esteem."
Camp Kodiak is not the only Ontario camp that puts campers with special needs first. Of the 283 provincial camps (218 residential and 65 day camps) accredited by the Ontario Camping Association (OCA), 27 are fully inclusive and 80 are working toward inclusion. At those camps working toward inclusion, kids with special needs make up about 10 per cent of total campers. At 16 of these camps, partnerships have been forged with Reach for the Rainbow, a non-profit organization that co-ordinates integrated camp experiences with one-on-one support.
The Ontario government also supports special needs integration through the Ministry of Community, Family and Children's Services, where families can apply for funding to hire a support worker for their child. Various community organizations and charities also offer a wide range of services for campers with special needs.
In addition to acting as a resource for camp information, the non-profit, volunteer-driven OCA helps camps develop their inclusiveness through conferences, camp drives and camp community networking.
Sari Grossinger, co-chair of the special needs committee for the OCA, hopes to one day turn the association into a charity in order to act as a source of funding for families. "We want to make sure there are choices for families," Grossinger says.
Grossinger is also a director of Camp Robin Hood, which is working toward inclusion. At the Markham, Ontario day camp, 1,200 mainstream and special needs campers can enjoy four pools, sports, arts and crafts, cookouts and much more on a 20-hectare site, all run by a staff of 375.
"We focus more on teamwork and less on competition," Grossinger says. "Camp should involve the participation of everyone."
The move toward integrated camps in Ontario is in keeping with trends in other provinces, including Quebec.
"We've always encouraged it," says Louis Jean, director of the Association des Camps du Quebec (ACQ). Of 122 camps accredited by the ACQ, 42 are inclusive to varying degrees.
"There are some campers who would find a totally specialized camp not challenging enough," he says, "but they need special attention at a regular camp. Integrated camps solve that problem."
Camp Green Acres is also working to bridge that gap. Of the 900 campers age 3 to 13 that the Markham, Ontario day camp accommodates each summer, up to 150 are kids with special needs. Each special needs child works one-on-one with a mentor selected by the parent or a member of the camp staff, but every effort is made to ensure the camper functions as part of the whole.
"Everyone works together as a group," says Robyn Hochglaube, camp director. "Unless there's a need for an aid to step in, we make it as seamless and unobtrusive as possible."
Lyssa Caine, owner and director of Camp Joshua in Belwood Lake in Rockwood, Ontario, has also seen the benefits of fostering an inclusive camp environment. As a residential camp working toward inclusion, Camp Joshua accommodates 40 campers per summer, with up to seven being kids with physical or behavioural problems.
"We pick sites that are barrier-free, with more flat terrain, rather than rocky and steep," says Caine, pointing to one of the camp's modification strategies.
Caine also co-chairs the OCA's special needs committee with Grossinger, and says modification isn't necessarily as expensive or time-consuming as some camps think.
"Depending on the camp, the changes don't have to be so in depth, maybe just tweaking programming or installing a ramp," she says.
Most of all, it's about further promoting the values that camps already embrace: respect and teamwork.
"We're teaching kids to be selfless and look out for others, and become part of a unit at camp," Caine says. "They are learning respect and important social skills for down the road."