Performing onstage in front of other campers. Bonding with cabinmates. Careening down a zip line.
For 16-year-old Brady Thompson, summer has been synonymous with fun at Roundup River Ranch in Gypsum, Colorado.
During each of the three summers before this one, the resident of West Des Moines, Iowa, headed to the ranch for a week of medically supported camp. The experiences represented some of Thompson’s only vacations. He doesn’t travel much because he has Kleine-Levin syndrome, a sleep disorder that sometimes necessitates intravenous infusions.
The camps are organized by Serious Fun Children’s Network, which produces free medical specialty camps around the world for kids with serious illnesses and their families. This year, though the coronavirus pandemic made it unsafe for Thompson to attend in person, he participated in camp anyway, thanks to a virtual program run over a Zoom-like interface from Jigsaw Interactive. Over the course of one week, Thompson showed off his black Labrador retriever named Tank, folded origami and participated in a challenge to see how many hats he could wear on his head at once (he managed three).
He even participated in sessions from Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, where he receives treatment for his condition on an as-needed basis every two to three months.
“I was disappointed that we couldn’t be there in person, but being able to do camp online and see other campers was really great,” Thompson said. “It will be a highlight of this weird time.”
Thompson isn’t the only child with special needs to benefit from virtual camps this summer; across the country, children who need extra help because of medical, emotional, or learning problems have benefited from a handful of programs designed to bring normalcy into their lives. All told, roughly 9.4 million children in the United States have special health care needs, according to US Department of Health and Human Services.
Because of their treatment regimens, many of these kids are considered to be at increased risk of contracting Covid-19 and are required to be diligent about sheltering in place.
These camps help combat isolation, said Laurie Stephens, senior director of autism programs for The Help Group. The Sherman Oaks, California-based nonprofit serves children on the autism spectrum.
“The camps are bringing kids together at a time when we have to be apart,” she said. “That’s important for all kids, but especially for kids (with special needs).”
Making new friends
The Help Group has run three different virtual “Kids Like Me” camps this summer, mostly for kids on the autism spectrum but welcoming children of all abilities. One of the programs focused on science and technology, while another focused on fun and recreational skills for young adults with developmental disabilities. A third, dubbed Village Glen, was designed for kids with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders and other social challenges, and focused on teaching social skills.
Crystal Archible said her 11-year-old son attended this last camp and thrived. Over the course of the weeklong camp, her son made friends, stayed focused for the duration of each two-hour session, did exercises that left him dripping with sweat and even sang “Titanium” by David Guetta in front of a few dozen campers during a camp talent show.
“I was doubtful at first, and worried that if something glitched or if there was no connection, how it might trigger him,” remembered Archible, who lives in Sylmar, California.
She added that attending camp with other special needs children helped her son feel like part of a team.
“After his first day he said he liked the camp because he finally felt like he was in a place where other kids were like him,” she said. “I think he always knew there were others like him out there, but he had never met them before. He actually said to me, ‘Mommy, I’m not alone.’ That meant everything.”
Virtual camps are a silver lining of social distancing, said Margalit Sturm Francus, the author of AutisticGlobetrotting.com, a travel-oriented blog for parents of kids on the autism spectrum. She said that because these camps give special needs families the opportunity to connect with each other and forge new relationships, everybody wins, including the parents.
“Special needs kids and their families are very isolated even in normal times but nowadays their routines are disrupted, and it is even harder,” said Francus, who has an autistic son herself. “These camps give families the chance to make new friends and have something to do.”
Embracing new experiences
While some children relish these virtual camp opportunities for the new friendships they nurture, other special needs kids have raved about the camps for all the new experiences they unlock.
Take Ethan LyBrand, a fifth grader from Decatur, Alabama. LyBrand lives with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a condition that causes him to tire easily and need to spend time in a wheelchair. Typically, LyBrand attends a regional summer camp offered by the Muscular Dystrophy Association and looks forward to swimming, archery and horseback riding. This year, however, the MDA canceled in-person camps due to concerns about Covid-19 and pivoted to a virtual camp program with several different activities.
LyBrand was excited to see how the camp translated into the virtual environment.
During a week in early July, he joined other campers in a camp-sponsored Zoom session for arts and crafts and a scavenger hunt of objects in their own houses. Through the camp he also participated in a virtual escape room sponsored by the International Association of Fire Fighters during which campers got to solve problems like firefighters.
“Camp is just one week, but it’s always the best week,” LyBrand said. “I’d never been to an actual escape room before, so I was pretty excited.”
Other organizations are sponsoring different remote learning opportunities. The Ed Asner Family Center, a Reseda, California-based facility that serves “differently abled individuals” and their families, is offering a variety of free virtual programs as supplements to Camp Ed, a small-group in-person camp.
Some of these virtual classes revolve around yoga, music therapy, comic drawing and more, Executive Director Navah Paskowitz-Asner said. So far, the classes have attracted students from as far away as England and Dubai.
Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
“With the uncertainty of when this (pandemic) will end, we’re just trying to give families options,” said Paskowitz-Asner, who co-founded the center with her husband, son of the actor Ed Asner. “Special needs kids need structure, and when they’re thrown out of routine, they don’t adapt the way a typically developing child might. The idea is to help with that structure and make it easier for everyone.”
Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Northern California. Learn more about him at whalehead.com.