By Kate Goodfellow
For children and youth with physical disabilities, Easter Seals Ontario’s overnight fully-accessible summer camps provide life-changing experiences, but this year required a re-think.
It is these experiences that bring campers back year-after-year. Veteran camper Graham, now 18, recently shared his reasons for returning to camp every year since age 12. “If I didn’t get the chance to go to camp, I wouldn’t get to enjoy canoeing or basketball in the same way,” noted Graham, before proceeding to list off all his other favourite camp activities, including the high ropes course, archery, sledge hockey, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, and whitewater rafting.
Graham’s camp experience hasn’t just been about the activities. It has also been about the friendships made and maintained over several summers. The cabinmates he met on his first day of camp have been his friends and cabinmates ever since. “There are about eight of us,” he explained. We met on our first camp experience together, and we bonded so well, we keep going back together!”
In addition to the activities and friendships, Graham also pointed out that camp is an opportunity to learn important new life skills. Whether it’s problem-solving, independence, or teamwork, camp integrates skill development into everyday camp activities. “While you stay at camp, learning life skills is just part of it. You don’t even know that you’re learning about teamwork,” said Graham.
For Graham, and hundreds of other Easter Seals campers, the closure of overnight camps due to the COVID-19 pandemic was a huge disappointment. Having already spent several months with limited opportunities for socialization and recreation, campers and families were in desperate need of camp to fill these voids. Although Easter Seals Ontario could not offer its traditional overnight camps, the organization did everything it could to serve its clients and families.
While many camps across Canada went dark for the Summer 2020 season, Easter Seals Ontario displayed creativity, adaptability, and resiliency in their approach to summer programming. Genuinely showcasing the values that lie at the heart of summer camp—to connect with new friends, engage in new activities, and learn new skills—Camp E-aster Seals, a new virtual camp platform, connected hundreds of Easter Seals campers to camp, in a time when families were desperate for connection and stimulation.
For seven weeks, campers, like 14-year-old Robert, met new people and shared new camp experiences in the virtual world of Camp E-aster Seals. From day one, Robert was fully invested and engaged in the virtual camp experience. When asked to name a highlight, Robert paused and took a long time to think. His mom stepped in to help him out—“To name one highlight is hard. There wasn’t an aspect [of virtual camp] that he didn’t enjoy.” Robert was an eager participant in all live events, specifically weekly karate sessions, banquets and campfires.
For parents who had been trying to entertain and engage their kids for several months already, Camp E-aster Seals provided a nice reprieve. The pandemic threw a wrench in camper Sam’s plans to attend overnight camp. However, even better than a ten-day overnight camp, Sam got to spend seven whole weeks connecting with camp and engaging with hundreds of his peers online through Camp E-aster Seals! And when the summer ended, camp continued! Whether through monthly virtual campfires or the Winter Break Camp, Sam has been able to participate in camp programming year-round from home.
The value of Easter Seals camps, whether delivered in-person or remotely, cannot be overstated. Sam’s mom beautifully summarizes the impact of the pandemic on many children and youth with physical disabilities, and the value of Easter Seals Ontario’s response to the situation: “The pandemic has been hard for all of us. Overnight our world changed. Collectively we suffered the loss of routines and daily connections with those in our lives. For a great many of us, we were able to adapt. For someone like Sam, changes can be difficult on many levels. The ability to simply roll with things is often out of his control. Sam’s disabilities, special needs and age all mean that he relies heavily on those around him, and COVID-19 forced a dramatic and often negative impact on Sam’s life.
How was I going to make sure Sam could still have fun, be a teenager and engage with others? The answer to my fears was Easter Seals. In true form, and without missing a beat, Easter Seals created their Virtual Camp platform.”
Virtual Camp is a place where Sam can engage, laugh, learn, and create. Virtual Camp is a fun, inclusive, and safe space for Sam to simply be himself, where he is valued for his unique contributions. Virtual Camp has turned loneliness into companionship and devastation over the loss of in-person camp into excitement, and all of this achieved while staying safe at home. We may be living in uncertain times, but thankfully Easter Seals has remained steadfast in their commitment to always being there to support exceptional children and their families.”
Campers like Graham, Robert, and Sam speak to the importance of their camp experience and the important friendships that have developed through camp. They are the reason Easter Seals Ontario is committed to continuing to provide camp programming, both in-person and remotely through virtual platforms or direct to children in their homes.
Kate Goodfellow began working at Easter Seals Camp Merrywood in 2016, becoming the Camp Director in January 2020, and over the last year she has been the lead for the development of virtual camp.