At UCS camp, kids have fun while learning skills

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NORTH BENNINGTON — Swimming, arts and crafts, and play — with a side of mindfulness, team-building and social-emotional skills.

Now in its sixth year, United Counseling Service's Camp be a Kid has provided a specialized day camp experience for children it serves who might not be suited to a traditional day camp model.

"Our camp was initially created by staff here in the youth and family division," said Katie Aiken, director of the camp. "Because what we were finding is — not all traditional day camps fit the needs of our children."

The camp, which opened on July 9, came to a close on Friday at Lake Paran.

The camp has grown and adapted over the years, Aiken said. Organizers have kept things that worked, and eliminated things that don't.

"It's become more of a therapeutically-based model," she said. And, they added the team model in the last few years.

There were 62 children participating this year. The camp, which is free, serves children who are receiving services from UCS' Youth and Family Services Division, out of the Bennington office.

Camp staff are able to meet mental health needs with strategies like the "quiet tent" — a green tent sent up just below the pavilion.

"It's sort of that separate space that kids can go if they need to," Aiken said. "Some children just like to go there if they're feeling overwhelmed."

Staff at the camp are also poised to handle children's needs.

"It can be difficult for a regular, say, camp experience environment to handle children who might have trauma or behavioral problems, because their staff most likely are not trained," said Samantha Kenyon, communications and development specialist for UCS. "Some kids might need some one-on-one."

Other camps may not have the staff to accommodate the needs of those children, she said.

Almost all of the staff at Camp be a Kid know the children they're supervising, Aiken said.

"They work with us all year long," she said. "We have skilled, trained workers that are able to handle any sort of behavioral issue. Every child is allowed to participate, despite the struggles that they may have on any given day."

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A lot of times, campers participate in group or individual work that highlight mindfulness, teamwork and conflict resolution, Kenyon said.

"They're learning skills through therapeutic activities," she said. "A lot of times, the kids don't even realize they're learning these skills. They're having fun."

Kids have done activities like yoga, art with nature and playing games to get to know each other.

"A big part of the reason that it's important for these youth is that, they might not be able to let go of trauma or any behavioral problems that they might have if they're having a particularly bad day, if they're at a regular camp," Kenyon said.

Untrained counselors may not be able to help a child in that situation, she said. But at Camp be a Kid, counselors can work with them.

Campers at Camp Be a Kid also get to meet others who might struggle with similar challenges, she said.

The camp also provides a very low staff-to-camper ratio, Aiken said. About eight to 10 temporary staff are also hired each year. They go through a "rigorous" week-long training process, she said.

Outside guests also provide programming for the campers. Andrea Malinowski, of RiseVT of Bennington County, does Zumba with the campers, and the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum also brings in wild animals and gives presentations, Aiken said.

Breakfast and lunch is also provided free for the campers on camp days.

"The families don't even have to worry about that," Aiken said. Free transportation is also available for families living in Bennington, North Bennington, Pownal and Shaftsbury, if needed.

The program is funded through various sources, primarily grants and allocated money that UCS receives from the Vermont Department of Mental Health.

UCS also finds that family emergency calls for children drop in the summer during camp periods.

"Because they're able to spend three days a week, full days, with mental health professionals who are able to meet those needs and really help build on those things," Aiken said of the campers.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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