NORTH BENNINGTON — Summer camp is a way for children to stay busy in the summer, but not every camp is suitable for every child.
The United Counseling Service's "Camp Be A Kid" is in its fourth year at Lake Paran and caters to children in the Youth and Family Services division age 2 to 12, at no cost to the parents. For six weeks, three days per week, children participate in field trips, meet special guests, and participate in two group activities per day with swim time in the lake. The goal of the camp is to better help the children work through personal challenges in a positive environment by being "mindful."
Youth and Family Services has staff that counsels families and their children who experience emotional and behavioral issues such as shyness or violent aggression. Counseling includes assessments with the entire family or on an individual basis at UCS and in the field at school or in the home.
About 54 children are enrolled in the camp this year and broken up into seven different groups. For each group there is a temporary staff member for the summer, a clinician and a community support worker from UCS. Therapeutic activities range from yoga and paddleboarding to getting a nature lesson, playing with animals and working with other outside partners, which camp organizer Katie Aiken said has grown since the camp's inception. Others include cooking, woodworking, sports group, Lego group and random act of kindness group. Teams choose two different therapeutic activities to do per day. One at 10:30 a.m. and the other at 2 p.m. The camp runs from 9:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.
"When it first was started, what we found was that there wasn't a lot of available options for kids with mental health issues in the community in terms of camps, so the youth and family services staff really wanted to create this program," Aiken said. "We took the bull by the horns and really made it our own."
This is the second year Aiken has been in charge.
One of the new components added to camp this year is daily and weekly goals the children make for themselves and for the team, which then gains them tickets for a pizza party or extra swim time.
Last year the Manchester Youth and Family division clients were invited to come to the camp and it worked out so well that they returned this year. Aiken said the children enjoy expanding friendships in a safe area where they fit in. UCS vans drive to the Northshire every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning to get the children.
"We make sure we meet them where their needs are so that they can be successful and have the summer camp experience," she said.
Paddleboarding was added in the second year and is instructed by UCS clinician Kristen Krichoff. She said it helps the children learn in the moment and not think about the past or present. UCS owns all the boards.
"I like the ability to teach the kids what mindfulness really means, in the moment," Krichoff said. "Stand-up paddleboarding is the quickest method of teaching self confidence that I ever experienced in my years of doing this. They have to maintain on the board without being anywhere else and then they can figure out what mindfulness means and when they actually stand on the board, they can experience what it feels like to be confident."
To be mindful means to have a conscious state of awareness by focusing on the present moment and calming acknowledging one's feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations.
Because of the remedial atmosphere of the camp and the techniques used to help children control their emotions, Aiken said that family emergency calls are down during the summer. On the railings that line the path to the lake, there are signs that read 'stop and breathe.'
Aiken said it's good that the camp staff already knows the children from working with them as a client throughout the year. Not only does the clinician get to see and help a child in a different setting, but the child gets to experience the clinician as a friend instead of an adult and interact with him/her on a different level, she noted.
Even the summer camp staff have learned a lot from working with the children. Katie Keenan is a teacher during the school year, but decided to continue to work with kids during the hot months at the lake. She heard about the opportunity through a friend and was convinced after talking to Aiken and other staff.
"It just sounded like an amazing program. Kids that need the extra attention and support in the summer, they can't just be home in the summer. While I've been here I've see so many amazing things," Keenan said. "The staff are very supportive, the activities are fun and engaging and it's at Lake Paran!"
She said at the beginning of the school year, her class list changes so she's had some exposure to children with emotional and behavioral issues.
"Every kid you come in contact with you learn something different. You learn a new way to learn to talk to children. New ways to help them, and how to be empathetic," she added. "That's like the thing I learn the most every year is how to support them and understand them. Their behavior isn't something about you. It's how they're responding to their environment."
—Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.