It is often said by people who mean well that working with children with special needs “requires the patience of a saint.” Not true. What it does require is human compassion — something more of us have than we seem ready to acknowledge.

Elevating the status of someone who works with a child with special needs to that of a saint is a not-so-subtle way of saying that the work is so challenging that it requires extra human effort. At the same time, it establishes the justification for not even considering such work. After all, if one is only human, let the saints among us help the physically disabled, lead the blind, comfort the emotionally disturbed, and tend the sick. It’s the “I’m no saint” defense.

If it is evidence that is required to demonstrate the attitude many young people have about working with children with special needs, you need go no further than a special needs camp director who has attended a summer camp job fair. It matters little whether the fairs are organized by career placement offices at colleges in the United States or by international counselor exchange agencies abroad. The directors can describe how students stroll by table after table looking at the attractive pictures of happy children playing at camp. However, when they come to a table for a camp that serves special populations they often pass by a little too quickly, occasionally adding, with some embarrassment, that they lack the patience, experience, or ability to cope with such work. It’s the “I’m no saint” excuse.

Overcoming the “I’m No Saint” Excuse

Students who do choose to work at a special needs camp, in spite of their initial concerns, will usually discover at the end of the season that their first cautious reaction was well worth overcoming. This is particularly true of young men, who find themselves in a culture that does not value care giving as a sufficiently masculine trait. Their decision to defy custom is more difficult than for young women, while their feeling of satisfaction at the end of the summer is just as great.

Start with the idea that the desire to help people with disabilities is a very human characteristic. There are simply no other creatures that we know of who have developed similar behaviors. Compassion, after all, has a human face. Those who incorporate it into their lives allow themselves to become more human or humane, while they help others, less fortunate than themselves.

As a camp counselor, your care giving may start with the physical and take the form of guiding a blind child through the woods or lifting a child with a disability from a wheelchair into a swimming pool. However, human compassion also demands a degree of understanding. It thrives on the ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another and to ask some very profound questions about life’s vagaries. Understanding is essential to providing good care. It is the growth in sensitivity and the wisdom that emerges from it that will eventually provide you with the biggest reward.

Taking the Risk

You are taking a risk when you make the decision to work at any sleep-away camp for the summer, particularly if you have not grown up as a camper in that camp and do not know its physical surroundings or unique culture from first-hand experience. You must be prepared to leave the comfort of your home for a more primitive place in the country many miles away at which you will live and work for two months. Will you like the kids? Will the kids like you? Will you get along with the other staff members? Will you be able to sleep in a non-heated, non-air-conditioned cabin or tent? Will the food be edible?

But what if you choose a special needs camp? You face the additional challenge of interacting with campers who may have behavioral deficits, orthopedic appliances, physical care needs, speech defects, learning disabilities, and other problems which affect their ability to adjust to camp. You will be reaching out to children who are often isolated from mainstream society and trying to help them have a wonderful summer camp experience.

Different risks for international staff
International staff members face those risks as well and more. Working in America may be a dream come true, but it is not without some very extraordinary hurdles to overcome. Obtaining a visa, flying to the U.S., negotiating through immigration, and making travel connections to a rural camp that may be located miles from a remote train station are all daunting. Then there is the change in time, food, and culture, which can challenge the spirit as well as the digestive tract. There are language issues, which can be overwhelming, even for those who have studied English for many years, as they have to deal with American idioms, slang, and a barrage of camp expressions.

International staff will arrive at camp with the knowledge that their fluency in English is going to be put to the test. They often hone their English skills by watching American TV, but there are few TV personalities with speech defects. In the beginning, trying to communicate with campers with special needs can seem insurmountable.

Quite remarkably, the potential communication problem disappears in short order. As it turns out, American and international staffs develop alternatives to verbal communication when necessary. Words are not always the only or even the best way to convey feelings of joy, sadness, fear, contentment, anger, and love. In time, the “language thing” disappears as an obstacle to understanding. After all, understanding human emotions needs no words and has no grammar. It has its own universal language. Try laughing in Greek or Samoan or Urdu. It’s all the same. A child’s tear is a tear in all languages, and the comforting that stems its flow is universal.

In spite of the difficulties, most who make the decision to work at a sleep-away camp negotiate the minefield of risks and adjust to their surroundings with great courage and grace.

A Resume-Building Experience

One of the many rewards of working with children with special needs is resume building. If you are exploring a career in special education, physical therapy, occupational therapy, or similar professions, a hands-on experience can teach you what you cannot easily learn from a classroom or textbook. You will have the opportunity to test the depth of your own commitment to that kind of work and have the chance to redirect your career if necessary before you make the full investment in education and training.

Even if you don’t have career goals in those particular fields, you can find working at a special needs camp to be professionally valuable. Resumes which reveal a social interest in the well-being of others are well received by prospective employers. It speaks to the issue of values and often allows the interviewer to see beyond grade point averages and test scores.

Special needs camp directors will confirm that some of their best staff are students who do not have career goals in the field. While they, too, learn a great deal about the impact of disability, they often focus less on technical issues and more on the job of giving kids a wonderful, joy-filled summer. This is a goal that is no different than one would have in a non-specialized camp. Yet the impact on staff of achieving a valuable goal with children with special needs can leave them with something unique at the end of the summer.

Learning Life Lessons

Working with children with special needs will teach you very important lessons in life. You will come to the realization that you don’t have to be a saint to succeed in meeting the needs of others. You will acquire a better understanding of the problems such children face in their development. This awareness can be of significant help to you in your own life, especially as you may face critical decisions about the development of your own children one day.

You will also learn that some of the difficulties special children face have to do with the way they are perceived and treated by society in general. As a result of your heightened sensitivity, you may never pass by a blind man waiting to cross the street without asking to be of help. You will never express impatience as a New York City bus driver takes the time to lower the hydraulic lift to enable a wheelchair user to board. Your attitude toward people with special needs will be forever altered for the good, and you will function as ambassadors of better understanding for everyone.

Rewards are proportional to risk — the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. The difference you make during the summer in the lives of children with special needs becomes a valuable experience from which you will benefit for a lifetime.

It is important that young people see working in a special needs camp as something that does not require extra-human qualities. It’s a matter of changing attitudes. It is also important that working with children with special needs is viewed as an opportunity to gain valuable life experience.

This is certainly not to suggest that working with children without disabilities is less rewarding. However, the consideration of work in a special needs camp should not be rejected out of hand. In the best of all possible worlds, you should feel free to explore both work experiences with equal passion.

Marvin A. Raps is the executive director of the New York Service for the Handicapped/Camp Oakhurst in New York City

Originally published in the 2003 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.