Youth Camps and Mission Projects Can Be
You are sending your youth to camp or on a mission project. A student with a disability signs up. Don’t wait until you get to camp or are housed for a project to gasp. Do it now, and prepare yourself and your volunteers. You can’t go to each project to be in charge of each student with special needs. A little planning and training for yourself and your volunteers will allow you to work and enjoy yourself. What do you do first?
Before you commit to a project or camp:
First: Ask if the student with a disability needs specially equipped transportation to get to the camp or the project.
Second: Ask if the camp or project housing is mobility accessible. If not, work with the parents to discover how a portable ramp will help or determine if it will not work in that area. Are there accessible restrooms. Is electricity available in tents or other quarters for charging equipment? If it is not accessible, find a different project or camp.
Before you go to camp or project:
Ahead of time contact parents, deal with safety, housing arrangements, equipment information and recruit a mentor for each student with a disability. Pray with both parents and mentors, as this is a God task where the Holy Spirit goes to camp or the mission event.
When a student with a disability registers, immediately contact the parents. Safety is their greatest concern. You need information from parents that will help keep their child safe. A safety and information sheet filled out before going to camp will give you information about medications, allergies, needed equipment, fears, likes and dislikes of the student and suggestions for keeping the person safe, including how to prevent a meltdown or deal with one if it happens. Get explicit directions for medications, and inform the parents who will supervise dispensing of it. Most camps and events are rural, so learn the location of the nearest hospital and how long it will take to get there.
Housing arrangements and bathroom needs are at the top of the list accessibility checklist. Does this student use a noisy oxygen generator at night (might not need a roommate) or a portable one during the daytime? Does this equipment use batteries that need recharging? Does this person need hygiene assistance or help for daytime or nighttime bathroom visits?Does he tend to wander at day or night? Can this student speak or need an interpreter or does he speech read or need you to write words?
Equipment information is a necessity. Does a piece of equipment require nighttime electrical charging such as a wheelchair or communication board? Might a hearing aid need a new battery? Is a technical mentor needed for a communications board? Does the student or aide or mentor carry an epiPen? Does the student get auditory overload and need sensory screening ear equipment??
Provide an adult mentor for each student with a disability. Some persons have a passion for students with a disability and will take vacation time to mentor them for an event. This person remains alert in the background to allow the student to develop his own peer relationships, but notices when sensory overload is about to happen or if the person needs help cutting their food or following directions. The mentor needs to be housed with his/her student. The project leader and mentor should confer at least daily about any changes in assignment or other issues. Change is difficult for some students, so establish a routine and stick to it. Students with cognitive challenges benefit from a written schedule. Talk to the student ahead of time if the schedule will change.
Behavioral issues often stem from sensory overload or from stress regarding communication. Sensory overload or even a meltdown can be a problem. The student’s mentor can help with possible meltdown or intervene if the student has too much stimulation.
Socialization skills are sometimes lacking for a person with special needs. Typical youth have previously learned relational skills leading up to this age, but for students with certain disabilities, their neurological hardwiring has not allowed them to be age appropriate. Patience and behavioral leeway are required, and an “apart” quiet area may be needed.
Some students literally cannot join a group. They often use parallel play, learning and worship, meaning they may wander or SEEM to not be listening or interested, but are having a vicarious experience and are engaging. All wandering is not parallel learning and worship, but be aware that it is possible.
Now what? Now What? Now WHAT?
Once you help a student feel safe with you and with others in the group because it is friendly and accepting, the cooperation and group tasks are easier, and when you know the gifts and talents of the student with a disability you can match him to the right activity or task. Everyone can do something! Succinct directions are a must, and you need to know if the student follows verbal directions or needs to be shown. Some may even need to have their task written for them. Even a person in a power chair without functional limbs can carry trays of sandwiches or fetch nails or, with help, catch a fish. Many can hammer, sing, and lead a class or worship service. Some may be encouragers who hand out water or smiles. It’s not hard. You are the key to helping your volunteers help everyone.
For additional information, see Sensory Overload and Seizure