“You’re precious just as you are.” For one charitable organization in Columbia, this is a declaration that they hope all participants will embrace when they leave. Camp Discovery at His Acres in Blythewood is a non-profit therapeutic recreation camp that was created to serve all children, from those with special needs and life challenges to gifted and talented students and Scouts. The camp offers a safe and accepting emotional environment where goal-oriented activities help children learn to easily navigate struggles, and by mixing all types of kids together, the hope is that everyone can learn from each other.
The children who attend Camp Discovery span the spectrum. According to Donna Johnson, founder, president and CEO of Camp Discovery, all children are welcome. The common denominator among the kids is activity participation. But some kids are affected by personal challenges, including gang involvement, physical and emotional abuse and anger management issues. For them, therapeutic services can be requested by their schools, guidance counselors, parents, guardians, physicians or other people with close association.
“For our participants who have had negative life experiences, their abilities to make positive decisions are affected. Their thought processes just aren’t working,” says Henry Chastain, development coordinator with Camp Discovery. “We work with the children to give them some actionable tools that may work better for them. But the first thing we have to let them know is that we respect them. And they have to respect everyone else in the camp. Each one of us is equal. No one in the group has more value than anyone else.”
By mixing all types of kids together at Camp Discovery, the hope is that everyone can learn from each other.
Instilling that belief in the campers, however, isn’t often easy. The campers who come from at-risk homes and backgrounds find that learning to trust and share personal feelings is a foreign concept. Because of their environments or their pasts, they may have control or self-esteem issues. But the team at Camp Discovery has worked hard to break through tough exteriors to teach children tools that can help them better manage their own lives. “We teach through experiences,” says Donna. “We assess all children before they arrive at the camp to learn more about their backgrounds, their challenges. And then we create a secure environment where they feel safe to learn new skills.”
The assessment phase is key to the success of the participant. As a certified recreation therapist for more than 30 years, Donna is attuned to what children need. She is sure to ask them what they see as their issues – not just what their parents, guardians or teachers think.
“I size them up, and they size me up,” she says. “At the first meeting, I observe their behaviors … I know if they can follow instructions, what their attention spans are and their energy levels.” Regardless of the assessment, Donna is sure to keep all concepts straightforward and logical. One tool she uses is a hula hoop as a visual way to help children understand the value of personal space. “We take for granted that someone knows how to react when someone is in their space and in their comfort zone. The hula hoop technique helps them to physically understand this. If your hula hoop is overlapping my hula hoop, you’re too close.” It may seem like a simple concept, but for a child who has never had or been given boundaries, it can be a life-changing exercise.
Campers participate in a team building activity using balloons.
For some children, the challenge may be short attention spans and ultra-high energy levels, issues Donna says are common for children behind their appropriate level in school. “We will create exercises to help them manage their attention spans, and we reward them for staying on task. There are never any punitive reactions, but we do reward positive behavior,” Donna says. She also assesses the children to find the leaders and the followers so that she can most effectively work with them and understand their mindsets. It’s important that the children know they are not being judged.
Face your fears. Think before you do. Keep your power
Henry breaks it down quite simply: “Face your fears. Think before you do. Keep your power. We teach these children that once they get mad at someone and hit them, they have transferred their power to them, and consequences follow. We teach them to stop and think.”
The successes now are just as sweet as they were 27 years ago when the camp was founded. And today, Camp Discovery is proud to be debt free. Having many participants who don’t come from affluent families, however, can be challenging, as participation is not covered by insurance, only private payment. Camp Discovery works closely with the community to raise money and create scholarships so that no child is left out. “Some of the needs are greatest in those who don’t have the resources to send their children to the program,” said Donna. “We appreciate the help of the community so that we don’t leave out those who otherwise couldn’t receive our services.”
For Donna, the results that happen on an individual level for the participants are what make Camp Discovery so valuable. She makes certain not to take credit for the accomplishments of her campers. “We strive to help our campers become good at something that was once a weakness. But we allow the children the dignity of taking credit for whether or not they wanted to make that choice and change that behavior,” says Donna. “Ultimately, when these children grow and change their patterns of behavior, they should be the ones taking the credit for making the positive change, for going through the process, and for struggling to maintain it.”
Henry sums up the value of Camp Discovery, saying, “We had an eight-year-old camper who didn’t say a word the entire day. When we went around the table to ask each child what they had learned during the day, we didn’t expect her to speak. But instead, she said, ‘Nobody has ever told me I was precious. No one has ever told me they loved me.’ That’s a discovery no one can ever take away from her.”