Last summer, 8-year-old Scott Jones was nervous about going to sleep-away camp for the first time. But after a week filled with activities like swimming, boating, and hiking at Dragonfly Forest camp in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Scott had such a great time he wanted to go back the next week—and the one after that.
This type of experience is just what the camp aims to give: one where kids with medical and special needs, including those with autism, like Scott, can have an unforgettable week. “Generally speaking, when you ask people about their most favorite memories, they’re not from therapy or school,” says Sylvia van Meerten, vice president of Year Round Programming. “Their favorite memories are when they were intentionally pulled away from life to have fun. We’re here to do just that—give them a week based on fun.”
Dragonfly Forest held its first season in 2005 and offers summer session for campers with sickle cell anemia and hemophilia, asthma and respiratory problems, and 22q11.2 Deletion Syndrome. The session for children on the autism spectrum began in 2007. “We realized that kids with autism didn’t have a summer camp in the area, where they were treated like normal kids,” says Dragonfly Forest president Fred Weiner. Now, the yearly session attracts nearly 100 campers, on all ranges of the spectrum. Plus, attending camp is totally free for all kids. “We wanted to make a program where families didn’t have to worry where the money was coming from,” Weiner says. (The camp receives funds from individuals and from corporate and foundation sponsorships.)
The staff takes pride when visitors say Dragonfly Forest looks like a “regular camp,” says Weiner. “They wouldn’t be able to tell that there’s anything special about these kids—and that’s the way we wanted it to be,” he explains. It includes facilities like those at traditional camps: dorm-style housing, a 14-acre lake, tennis courts, and an arts and theater center.
But the staff does take measures to ensure Dragonfly Forest is well-suited to kids on the spectrum: The key is to relieve their anxiety in social situations, says van Meerten. Kids with autism have a hard time picking up social cues and predicting what will happen next, which can make them nervous, she explains. “A typical person would feel anxious in a different culture where things don’t make sense,” van Meerten says. Often, kids who have autism feel this way in everyday life, she says. To alleviate this stress, the staff sense out info booklets before camp starts, sticks to schedules, and offers kids explanations before activities and meals.
Trained counselors are assigned to one or two kids, with a counselor/camper ration of 2:1. Cheryl Fortunato, whose 14-year-old son Kevin attended camp last year, says parents and campers appreciate the counselors’ energy and enthusiasm. “The kids feel well-received and embraced,” she says. “That’s refreshing, because so often they are not.”
Once camp is over, the kids head home with a newfound sense of confidence and independence, says Weiner. Case in point: Scott wouldn’t try the zip line at a friend’s house before camp. After conquering it over the summer, the family installed a mini zip line in their yard. “Scott is the kind of kid who hands back and assess the situation,” his mother Rebecca says. “His hang-back time is a little bit shorter now.”