Summer camp provides a unique experience to area children and IU students

Just five minutes into a day at Camp Connections, and there is no doubt Adam Shahadey is having a good time.

Full of energy and quick with a smile, Adam spent a recent camp day running around the Templeton Elementary School gymnasium, creating art projects and learning vocabulary words.

“It’s a great program,” said his mother, Missy Shahadey. “He really looks forward to it, and there is not a lot out there in the summer for kids with special needs, as far as a structured routine. He does so much better in a structured routine.”

Adam Shahadey having fun at Camp Connections

Camper Adam Shahadey smiles during a gym activity at Camp Connections. | Photo by James Brosher, IU Communications

Adam, who has Down syndrome, has been participating in Camp Connections for the past three years. A partnership between Indiana University’s Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences and the Monroe County Community School Corp., Camp Connections provides a free, traditional summer camp experience for students in kindergarten through sixth grade who have moderate to severe communication and cognitive disabilities.

The program, led by MCCSC special education teachers and graduate students in IU’s Speech Language Pathology Program, not only provides a fun, summer experience but builds on campers’ communication and language skills.

“Language and communication are core deficits for the campers who attend,” said Erin Peabody, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences and camp co-director. “So to be able to provide programing that is grounded in those two things but wrapped around a traditional camp experience is so great.”

The camp, which is funded by IU Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, has expanded from one week to two in its third year.

Each day starts with a quick opening circle full of cheering, dancing and preparation for a “great day at Camp Connections!” Students are then divided into groups, where they are paired one-on-one with a camp leader. Throughout the day, campers rotate through numerous activities revolving around art, music, literacy, adventure and sports.

Camper Quinna Burks practices sorting.

Camper Quinna Burks practices sorting during the camp. | Photo by James Brosher, IU Communications

Language and communication are incorporated throughout each activity, which is tailored to meet the needs of each child.

“One camper might be nonverbal and have trouble following one-step direction while another might be very verbal and able to follow multi-step direction,” Peabody said. “So our camp staff is able to take one activity and modify it to meet the camper exactly where they are to maximize their engagement and enjoyment of each activity.”

Not only is the camp beneficial to the young people who attend, but it is also provides valuable training to the 24 IU graduate students taking part. The graduate students undergo extensive training on evidence-based practices leading up to the camp and meet with MCCSC teachers and staff and IU professors to create lessons and activities and learn a little bit about each camper.

That work is done through a close collaboration between IU and MCCSC professionals, said Kathleen Hugo, MCCSC’s director of special education, who praised IU’s support of the program.

“While it may look like a lot of fun, there has been a tremendous amount of work in planning and developing materials for these kids and making sure there is enough support so every one of them can have fun while still learning at the same time,” she said.

Becca Harder is one of the IU students taking part in this year’s camp. Harder’s interest in becoming a speech pathologist stems from her experiences with a cousin who is disabled. Having worked with MCCSC before, and other summer camps, Harder was excited to be a part of Camp Connections.

camp connections

Camper Hailey Kell, middle, smiles as she prepares for a day of camp with IU student Maggie Brennan, right, and MCCSC teacher Jen Evans, left. | Photo by James Brosher, IU communications

“This is absolutely fun for me,” Harder said. “This population we are working with is my happy place. This is really what I want to be doing. I go home after camp thinking ‘this was such a fun day.’ I’m exhausted, but at the same time I know we have worked really hard to get everything done and to include every student all along the way.

“For me to apply what I’m learning in my program and to bring that to students in the community is really special,” she said. “This really allows us to work with a variety of different students, with a variety of different needs and to apply what we are learning on a wider scale.”

The Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences is hoping to not only continue Camp Connections in the future but to eventually expand it.

The experience, Peabody said, is just too valuable to both IU students and the community they serve.

“We feel really honored to be able to do this for the community,” she said. “For a number of these campers, this is their only summer programming. So to be able to provide this unique opportunity for families that really helps these campers grow and learn is really great.”

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