UMass Amherst Summer Camp for Special Needs Children Offers Fun Learning and Fosters Community

AMHERST, Mass. – As the parents of special needs children know, summer can be a lonely time for kids who don’t fit in at a typical day camp. But children from across western Massachusetts who need augmentative and alternative communication can now attend a five-week summer camp in Holyoke with 35 other kids like themselves, a rich experience provided by some dedicated University of Massachusetts Amherst speech language pathology graduate students and recent grads.
Hillary Jellison and Nerissa Hall, who is working on her doctorate in communication disorders at UMass Amherst, co-founders of a company they call Communicare, lead the summer camp four days per week, four hours a day through Aug. 10 at the E.N. White elementary school, in collaboration with Holyoke Public Schools. Campers who range in age from 3 to 21 also spend one day a week at Camp Jericho courtesy of the Diocese of Springfield, to swim at the pool there and enjoy the therapeutic riding center and accessible playground.
A public open house on Aug. 8 will be held for all interested visitors from 10 a.m. to noon at White Elementary School in Holyoke.
This special camp has been offered for the past five years and participation has steadily grown. Campers have special needs because of birth defects, cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome or developmental delays, for example, and as a result rely on alternative means of communication. This camp not only connects augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) users, but serves as an intensive training program for paraprofessionals and pre-professional speech pathology clinicians. In fact, this year’s camp is staffed by eight UMass Amherst communication disorder graduate students who receive clinical internship credit for their work.
Hall says, “All the kids just love it. They really get to know each other over five weeks, to form friendships and bonds with kids like themselves. It’s a very, very positive experience for all.”
“These youngsters have significant communication needs, but with our UMass Amherst grad students and the children’s paraprofessionals, we are able to give each camper a great deal of personal attention to create a really wonderful summer camp experience,” she adds.
Nearly all campers need what’s called augmentative and alternative communication (ACC). Many use high-tech Prentke Romich devices that look like a small laptop computer. A rapidly growing trend in the field, the devices give children, depending on age and skill level, choices on a graphic screen with buttons for communicating. “Some kids will have a single button that means a whole sentence, while others can put together a long message using letters or words,” Hall explains.
Some campers and their families own devices and are comfortable with their use, while others are coming to camp to learn for the first time with their paraprofessionals how such devices can enhance their independence and quality of life. Hall says, “They get a lot of attention, four hours a day, four days a week, with approximately 24 paraprofessionals who are there to learn how to use the devices. Children who don’t already own one will be able to use one for the full five-week session.”
The ACC device training is a benefit for the graduate students, as well. “This intensive training gives them a skill set that they won’t get anywhere else and it’s really in high demand,” Hall says. “Camp is a unique placement because they really get to learn the high-tech devices and how to apply them in a clinical setting. We are so proud that we’re helping graduate a really experienced, highly trained workforce who are most expert at helping people with special needs.”