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My Teen Has Special Needs And Ontario Cancelling Overnight Camp Is Hitting Us Hard

Jun 1, 2020

Two years ago, I was picking up my youngest daughter from her two weeks at an overnight girl’s activity camp in Muskoka, when a counsellor approached me and said: "She is a leader. We want her to return as a leader in training when she’s old enough."

The entire drive back home, the camp counsellor’s words sat curled around my heart. "A leader"? My girl? My prickly teen, the one who struggles with communication, a learning disability and FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder)? Imagine that!

As a parent of a child with special needs, I have daily front-row seats to all the ways she is excluded in the day-to-day social and academic environment. Oh sure, I know that almost every school board in North America speaks of inclusion as a mandate — however, reality for us has always looked a lot different than that.


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The Daily Struggles

First, there's not being invited to birthday parties and sleepovers. I've noticed it, and there are hard questions sometimes. "Why am I not invited to Janet’s sleepover?" There are no good answers, so I make up excuses. "Well, they could probably only have five or six girls." I'm forever building consolation prizes in, trying to take her mind off of the latest social slight. We'll have a movie marathon and I'll buy all sorts of treats, and maybe we'll even move sleeping bags into the basement and stay up late having fun — but this tiny vice grip is squeezing my heart. So I bite my cheek not to cry and think of other things, knowing this is likely to happen again.

"Sometimes it takes a different voice, like a camp counsellor, showing a child with special needs ... that differences are strengths."

During the school year, it's the endless phone calls from school wearing me down. In Grade 1 and 2, it was: "We don’t have enough educational assistants, or support, so unless you can take the day off and do the field trip, it won’t be safe for your daughter, who needs one-on-one support to be safe." But other calls came fast and furious too. Transition meetings, parent-teacher meetings, calls asking why she is late all the time, calls to the office over some slight infraction and the "please come get her now" calls, or "we will need to issue a suspension." Perplexing.

Worse than that though are the days I hear her call herself dumb. “I am so stupid.” There are only so many times that a parent can point out: “No, you are not. You are resourceful, talented and athletic.” Cue eye roll from your kid. “You have to say that. You are my mom.”

Sometimes it takes a different voice, like a camp counsellor, showing a child with special needs that different is good and valuable and worth including, that differences are strengths.

The Difference Camp Makes

Every year in the first week of January, camp sends my daughter a postcard and her countdown begins. It's a brilliant marketing tool, followed by a birthday card sent in March. For four years now, my daughter has marked the days off on a calendar starting in January and ending in August, when it's time for us to make the four-and-a-half hour drive. And 2020 was finally that year, the year she was old enough to be a leader in training. 

When school typically lets out in the summer, the promise of overnight camp fills our entire family with joy, hope, relief and adventure. As parents, we save all year, so that we can pay for two weeks in the woods with no electronics, and the privilege of sleeping in a cabin with roll-up plastic tarps for walls. The stories of racoons that got inside in the middle of the night and thunderstorms. Being greeted with "82 times! Mom, I swam the lake 82 times!"

"Overnight camp was our respite."

Camp is — was — an environment where my daughter with special needs can excel every year, surrounded by peers who love her and celebrate her for being who she is. Photography classes, high ropes, swimming, basketball and Bible study, too. She throws her heart, brain and body into all of it every season. She succeeds at activities, relationships and building friendships. Camp makes her a better person for months afterwards. It softens all of us at the edges.

The afternoon of the cancellation announcement, I spent a lot of time crying, hiding in the washroom and feeling physically sick to my stomach. Overnight camp was our respite. In fact, camp was the only break the entire family gets from shouldering the emotional and physical toll of parenting a child with multiple diagnoses. Two weeks without worrying about medicine and regulation, tracking therapy, scheduling specialist’s appointments and more. This was our only respite for everyone here. Gone.


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The Weight Of These Cancellations For Teens

Teens have already lost so much to COVID-19 and this was one more thing. I had so much hope that overnight camp could be figured out in some way while keeping kids safe from coronavirus, too. Some days during this pandemic I have felt as if a huge piece of my job has been finding threads of hope and offering them up like balloons to my teens who feel hopeless. I knew this was coming, but I'm crushed and also scrambling for ways to spin it into something positive.

"I don’t see camp happening again for her ...."

My daughter is 16 now. By next year, when she is 17, she will more than likely need a part-time job. I don’t see camp happening again for her and I am sad that this might have been her last chance to hang out in a cabin with this incredible group of girls from all over Ontario, several of whom are also adopted, who get together every August.

The loss of overnight camp is huge for many parents, and many teens who may not get another shot at a carefree summer. This was the year she was going to be a leader in training. A rite of passage for some and such an honour. The fact that this is even something she could do… My heart never doubted it, but at the same time, the world has been telling us for years: don’t get your hopes up.

So, what is there left for us to do? For a couple of weeks, she’s been suggesting we should get a tent, or sleep on the deck in sleeping bags under the stars. Maybe this summer we’ll make that happen. We are no wizards, and there’s no spell clever enough to obliterate this year, end a teen’s anxiety, anger or sadness, but it could be enough to create a happy distraction for a night.

Article Author Paula Schuck
Paula Schuck

Read more from Paula here.

My name is Paula Schuck and I have been writing professionally for over 20 years. I am a mother of two daughters, and I am a fierce advocate for several health issues. I am a yoga nut, skier and content coordinator for two London, Ontario, trade magazines. I have been published online and in traditional magazines and newspapers including: Today’s Parent, The Globe and Mail, Kitchener Record, London Free Press, trivago.ca, Ontario Parks blog and Food, Wine and Travel magazine.

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