Camp PALS: Where Dreams Come True

By Jenni Newbury, Hillsborough, NJ

Editor’s note: Camp PALS pairs up high-school-aged campers with DS with college students from around the country who volunteer their time for a week-long summer camp. The first camp in 2004, was host to 16 camper/counselor duos. In 2008, Camp PALS hosted 63 campers with their counselors for another week of having fun and making memories. For more information, visit www.camppals.com.

Origins

As a student at Parkland High School in Allentown, PA, Jason Toff came up with a program that emphasized social interaction between high school students with and without disabilities. PALS set up one-on-one pairings, group events and time in special education classrooms for student interaction. However, Jason observed that this interaction seemed to come to a halt when school was out for the summer, and he wondered if there might be a way to keep it going.

While attending an Entrepreneurship Camp run by Julian Krinsky, Jason proposed the idea for Camp PALS and invited Krinsky to hear the PALS presentation at the 2003 NDSC Convention in Philadelphia. Krinsky was inspired and offered to be a camp sponsor. As camp founders, Jason, Josh Stein and I decided it would be best to focus on one disability. Because Jason had an aunt with Down syndrome (and I have a brother), Camp PALS was created for young adults with DS. The camp has proven very successful and its growth has prompted the addition of a fourth director, Abby Kolker.

Camp PALS in a nutshell

Camp PALS is held for a week in a college campus dorm at the end of June. Counselors arrive a few days before camp starts to attend a variety of training and informational sessions before the campers arrive on Sunday. Each camper is matched one-on-one with a college-aged counselor, and the pair spends the week together, living in the same dorm and traveling to activities and trips together. Each pair is part of a larger team, led by a head counselor (usually an exceptional counselor from a previous year).

A typical day at Camp PALS includes an off-site trip (to the beach, movies, a baseball game, aquarium, etc.) as well as on-site activities. Choice Activities are the newest addition to the Camp PALS schedule, are led by a team of counselors who have a special interest in the preferred topic and occur in small groups of about 10 campers. Past activities include photography, cooking, aerobics, swimming, painting, tennis and yoga. Before the start of camp, campers rank their preferences.

Camp PALS ends the week with a Friday night formal dance for campers and counselors and a Saturday afternoon closing ceremony honoring all Camp PALS attendees and sponsors. The closing ceremony is open to family and friends.

The campers

Camp PALS offers campers a unique opportunity to be in both an inclusive environment (young adults with and without disabilities) and have a week to interact with their peers with DS, too. In addition to typical camp experiences, Camp PALS offers day-long trips to Ocean City, behind-the-scenes tours of bakeries and specialized activities that allow people to discover or indulge their passions. My younger brother, Jason, has been a camper for the past five years. Each time he returns home, my family sees some changes. Once, he switched to spray-deodorant because it’s “cooler.” Another year he learned to use an electric razor because “that’s what my counselor does.” Each year that Jason attends, he grows and gains new independent living skills.

The counselors

The counselors are all volunteers and have usually taken a week from work, an internship or vacation time to attend, so they highly value their time at camp. They come away empowered and inspired with a new perspective on themselves and others and often a desire to advocate for others with DS. Counselors form a connection to their camper — and often to the larger DS community. Former counselors have gone on to become special education teachers, attend the annual NDSC Convention and even raise funds for increased awareness and opportunities for people with DS.

Making connections

Before camp, counselors and campers complete application forms describing their interests and are usually paired by age and interest. We take great care in selecting both counselors and campers. If pairs return the following year, they often ask for the same camper/counselor.

Before the first Camp PALS session, we pondered a great deal over the dilemma of how to get campers and counselors to make a connection in a short time. We soon found, though, that it was not a problem. Because everyone greatly anticipates the start of camp, they jump right in to the activity and campers and counselors seem to click almost immediately. Since camp puts such a focus on one-on-one pairings, we find these bonds form naturally and campers and counselors seem to easily stick together throughout the week. We find that by the end of Sunday night, the camper and counselor bond has formed so quickly that counselors often relate to their campers as if they had been roommates for years.

Activities — successful (and not!)

So far, the most successful Camp PALS activities are the Choice Activities. We’ve found that offering campers a choice makes them feel much more independent and in control of their day. Choice Activities also allow us to respond to a camper’s interest and personality, making camp an individualized program for all of the attendees. Since counselors also provide specialized attention and enthusiasm when leading these activities, both campers and counselors thrive in this small group setting.

Following suit, it seems that the least successful activities do not pay attention to specific camper’s desires and preferences. If an event is planned for the entire camp and a certain camper is not interested in that activity, it is frustrating for both the camper and counselor when there is no other option. As Camp PALS expands, this has become a larger issue. For this reason, if a camper feels uncomfortable or is adamant about not participating, we now offer alternate options. However, we do try to expand campers’ skills and experience and encourage them to try new and challenging things.

Why it works

Camp PALS is successful because it embodies the original passion of three young adults. Camp PALS is run completely by young adults from the planning stages that begin in August to the last minute changes made the following June. Camp PALS is successful because people can make it their own — we make changes each and every year due to previous suggestions and new ideas. Camp PALS is malleable and sincere, no one makes a profit and everyone donates from their heart. Camp PALS is a collection of powerful young people who want to make a difference and have chosen to do so for no other reason than this is what they love. I think Camp PALS is a testament to the power of young adults today; revealing that they do care about their peers, they are ready to step up and that socially inclusive environments create these opportunities.