Janette Dafner is a young woman with a developmental delay and mild speech impairment – but she isn’t focused on the things that make her different. At Camp Huntington’s special needs summer camp, she has learned that celebrating our differences can make us stronger and that we all have more in common than we think. Camp Huntington serves children, teens and young adults of all ability levels and with a variety of disabilities, including developmental disabilities like autism, intellectual disabilities like Down syndrome, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, and learning disabilities. In a supportive environment, campers learn new skills from one another and use their energy to accomplish their goals rather than protect themselves from outside pressures. Needless to say, Janette loves camp. In fact, she has returned to Camp Huntington for 25 consecutive years. Here are a few of the reasons why.
According to Janette’s mom, Judi, the program is highly structured and promotes the development of academic, social and life skills, but it is designed in such a way that campers don’t even realize how much they’re learning. For example, campers may have the opportunity to buy small items at the store, which is exciting for them but also cultivates math and budgeting skills. The ropes course is a camp favorite, but the therapeutic focus is on team-building, cooperation and encouragement.
The directors at Camp Huntington have led the program for more than 25 years, and the counselors – many of whom travel from abroad to work at the camp – show their dedication to youth with special needs by returning year after year. “Every year I say there couldn’t be a better group of counselors, yet each year they outdo themselves,” said Judi. “The staff is diverse in gender, race and nationality and is so committed to the campers.”
“The camp experience has built Janette’s confidence and independence,” explained Judi. “She has a real sense of pride in what she does at camp.” To the surprise of Janette’s family and friends, every year she summons the courage to ride the zip line and shares stories of her accomplishments when she returns home. She is famous for singing Jewish music at the camp talent shows and has told her mom all about a contest called “Bunk Idol,” her newfound ability to swim in deep water and various other camp activities.
Camp Huntington is a special needs summer camp with the look and feel of a traditional camp. The facility is rustic but comfortable, and features all of the favorite camp activities and much more. “Camp Huntington allows kids with all types of disabilities to have a true camp experience, just like kids without disabilities would have,” explained Judi.
Every year there are new activities to explore at Camp Huntington. The program is backed by a half-century of knowledge, experience and research. Equally importantly, it continually expands on its rich history and deep understanding of children with special needs by adding new program components and developing an even more advanced level of clinical sophistication. “Over the years, the program has grown tremendously in every positive way I could hope for,” said Judi.
“Summer camp is a wonderful developmental opportunity for young people with special needs,” said Judi. “Janette counts the days leading up to camp every year. Camp Huntington has become an important part of Janette’s life, and the staff has become like family to us.” When asked what her favorite part of camp is, Janette smiles and says “everything.”
Founded in 1960, Camp Huntington serves youth with varying degrees of learning disabilities and developmental disorders including autism and mental retardation. The therapeutic recreation program is set on a 34-acre rural site and provides a fun, safe summer experience for 6- to 21-year-olds (youth participants are also welcome to continue attending camp when they reach adulthood). Its serene, camp-like setting is often the young person’s first experience away from home, and allows for the unique opportunity of peer and group socialization, relationship and self-confidence building, and the development of fine and gross motor skills, resulting in increased independence. Campers are grouped by age and ability, not by diagnosis, and spend time swimming, playing music, cooking, indoor climbing, singing and acting. Camp sessions last one, three or seven weeks.

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