SALISBURY — An inclusive summer camp gives children a chance to play and learn no matter what obstacles they face.
This is the second year of the camp held by Footprints in the Community, a nonprofit organization serving children with special needs.
Director Ashley Deaton said the camp welcomes all children, whether they have physical disabilities, speech disorders, problems with socialization or no special needs at all.
“We feel very strongly that if it’s inclusive, and if their typically developing peers can be here with them, doing these same things… that they can both learn from each other,” she said.
The “peer buddies” provide a model of good communication and movement for children with special needs. Deaton said the “peer buddies” also learn from those children how to be more accepting, caring and helpful.
The therapy camp is held each week in July at North Hills Christian School. Children ages 2-4 attend on Tuesdays, and those 5-8 attend on Thursdays.
Total attendance has doubled from last year to about 25 children, Deaton said.
At one station last Tuesday, children glued grains of rice, pieces of chocolate cereal and coffee grounds to a cartoon bear to give it “fur.” Camp leaders encouraged some of them to press their fingers into the glue as they spread it around.
“It’s sticky,” the leaders said as one child crinkled his nose.
Rhonda Hoce, an occupational therapy assistant with One Step at a Time Therapy Services, explained that the sensory station explores touch, texture and fine motor skills.
“A lot of kids have sensitivities, so the idea is to expose them to different sensory experiences,” Hoce said.
The station also included activities to improve hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.
When campers were asked questions about different animals, they pointed to a picture of the animal on a sheet. They also practiced coloring and picking up items with clothespins
The Footprints in the Community camp features four “stations” representing different aspects of child development. They are adapted to the needs of each age group.
Deaton said each week’s activities follow a different theme based on a book. Last week, it was an animal theme, and all of the campers got to take home a copy of the book, “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?”
At a physical therapy station, the children walked on paper lily pads and tossed bean bags at characters in the “Brown Bear” book. These games are meant to improve movement and coordination.
At a speech station, children were prompted to give the names and colors of different animals. They also had fun chirping like birds, barking like dogs and making other animal noises.
Finally, the campers learned more about animals through games at an academic station.
“Last year, from the data we took, we were able to show that every child coming to camp improved in at least one of these four areas,” Deaton said. “They’re motivated and excited about what they’re doing at camp.”
The “peer buddies” without special needs often attend on both Tuesdays and Thursdays, Hoce said, because there aren’t many in the younger age group.
Carly Hoce, 10, said she has fun helping the other children at the camp.
“I like watching the kids smile at you and wave, walking around and having a good time,” Carly said. “I think it’s good for them to get out, smile and have fun.”
Her mother agrees.
“A lot of these kids don’t go to school yet, and they’re not outside being with other kids,” Hoce said. “It’s nice to see them out of the home environment.”
Deaton said some of those who are already in school may not get to receive therapy or interact with other children during the summer.
“This is an opportunity for them not to lose any skills they’ve learned through the school year by coming to summer camp,” she said.
The campers sometimes take field trips to places like Dan Nicholas Park to spend more time out in the community.
Last Tuesday, the children also got a visit from a special guest — Sparky the pug.
Sparky is a certified educational assistant dog, said Lindsey Johnson, with the nonprofit group Paws4People. He can help with various forms of therapy.
“If we have kids who are working on walking, he can walk with them, or we can have them move to Sparky,” Johnson said.
They can also work on gently petting the dog, handing him treats, talking about him and imitating the sounds he makes. As one child touched the dog, camp leaders prompted him to describe what he felt.
“Fur,” he said. “It’s soft.”
Another child, Aiden Simmerson, has problems with extra movement. Johnson said he started to calm down and relax when he was with Sparky.
Mercedes Alston, 3, is a quiet camper. Leaders say they’re working on getting her to communicate with whole sentences instead of single words.
This proved to be a challenge during an interview, but there was one sentence she couldn’t wait to say.
“I want to pet the dog,” Mercedes said, grinning.
For more information about the Footprints in the Community summer camp, visit www.footprintsinthecommunity.com or call Ashley Deaton at 704-798-4879.