Hi! My name is Sophie and I worked as a general counsellor at an amazing Special Needs Camp in Iowa. I had an incredible summer and now I’m here to tell you more about the Special Needs Counsellor experience.
What Is A Special Needs Camp?
Special needs camps are the most wonderful places, where there is a real focus on making sure campers feel respected, cared for, and accepted for who they are. For many campers, this is the one week of the year where they are away from their parents or caregivers and it is the job of camp counsellors to try and make this the best week of the year! You don’t need previous experience working with people with special needs to work at a special needs camp. You just need to be kind, caring, compassionate, and ready to make a difference. Most special needs camps are open to children and adults, so you will get to work with people of all ages! When you arrive at camp, the leadership team will spend the first week training you, showing you how to use different adaptive equipment, understand individual needs, provide personal care when necessary, and teaching you how to plan inclusive activities, to make sure you feel ready and excited to welcome campers! Throughout your time at camp, the leadership team will be reachable at all times, so you are never on your own and can always call someone if you need advice.
What Is A Typical Day Like?
Well, first of all, there really is no such thing as a typical day at special needs camp! Everyday is different, which is one of the reasons working at camp is so fun and unlike any other job. One of your most important roles as a counsellor at a special needs camp is to adapt activities to meet the individual needs of the campers you are working with and make sure everyone feels included. While working at a special needs camp you’ll quickly learn how to think on the spot, creatively adapt activities and design your own inclusive games. While everyday is unique, here’s an example schedule of a typical day at camp:
07:00 – Wake up and help campers get dressed and ready for the day!
07:30 – Take your cabin to the see the camp nurse and pick up any morning meds
07:45 – Whole camp meets at the flagpole for camp songs (and dancing!)
08:00 – Breakfast time! Will it be freshly baked cinnamon rolls, fluffy pancakes with bacon or traditional biscuits and gravy? Some campers will happily serve themselves, while some might need a little bit of extra support with things like cutting up food into bite size pieces or using adaptive equipment.
09:00 – Activity 1 – the best part of camp! Campers will have tons of activities to choose from, such as swimming, fishing, sailing, rock climbing, zip lining, archery, horse riding, sports, dance, arts and crafts, photography and drama. As a general counsellor, I took my cabin to the activities then assisted the activity leader and made sure my group had a great time at each activity.
10:00 – Activity 2 – Sometimes you’ll have free time in the cabin’s timetable, this is your chance to plan your own activities for campers! I loved organising water fights, lip sync battles and treasure hunts for my campers. You’ll get to know your campers so well and will be able to plan activities based on their likes and hobbies.
11:00 – Activity 3
12:00 – Meet at the flagpole again for more camp songs, then head to the cafeteria for a tasty lunch. Some days we had cookouts and cooked hotdogs outside by the lake.
13:00 – Rest hour – time for the campers to relax indoors during the hottest part of the day, maybe have a nap, read a book or watch a movie.
14:00 – 16:00 – Some more amazing activity sessions
17:00 – Dinner – at my camp, dinner was usually served family-style. The whole cabin sits together around a big round table and the counsellors help to serve the campers and make sure everyone is enjoying their meal. Dinner is always followed by dessert! Help campers choose from treats like fruit, ice cream sandwiches, marshmallow fluff, freshly baked cookies, cakes, and popsicles.
18:00 – Head back to the cabins to get ready for the evening activity. Dress up for the banquet, or dress down for activities like waterslide or paint the counsellor!
18:30 – Evening activity – usually the whole camp will meet up to do an activity together, such as songs (and s’mores) around the campfire, talent show, boat party, fashion show or swimming party. At the end of the week we always organised a special banquet for campers, usually related to the week’s theme. Everyone would dress up in their best outfits, or make special fancy dress costumes, have a special meal together then spend the evening dancing to the campers’ favourite music!
20:30 – Time for showers, evening meds, toothbrushing and getting ready for bed! Maybe you’ll make up a bedtime story for campers, or talk to them about their favourite moment of the day.
21:00 – Bedtime! Counsellors take it in turns doing night duties and supervising the campers at night, once or twice a week. If you’re not on night duty, this is your chance to socialise with your fellow counsellors and get to know all the lovely people you work with at camp!
Advice For Working At A Special Needs Camp
I think working as a counselor at a special needs camp is one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. At times it might feel challenging and you might be tired after a long day, but this is a job where the more you put in, the more you get out of it too. My top three pieces of advice for making the most of the special needs camp experience are:
1 – Remember why you are there. As a counsellor at a special needs camp, you will have a real chance to make a difference to people’s lives.
2 – Talk, laugh and cry with your new friends at camp. You are all going through the same experience and will help each other out every single day. The strong bond you build with your campers and fellow counsellors will give you so much energy and the motivation to work through the difficult days.
3 – Appreciate the little wins along with the big ones. Watching your campers try things for the first time, develop new skills, build friendships and overcome challenges will fill you with pride and happiness. You will also learn so much about yourself and discover skills and strengths you didn’t know you had!
Overall, working at a special needs camp is an incredible opportunity to help other people while having the best summer and experience a different country. If you’re ready to start planning your summer of a lifetime, visit the apply page to start your application!