Synergy Camp: Building up youth self-worth!

By Melissa Murphy

Teaching, Reaching, and Experiencing with Kids (TREK), a program of LUK, Inc., is a therapeutic adventure-based/experiential learning (AB/EL) after-school, summer and vacation camp program for youth. Experiential education is a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with students in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills and clarify values.  

Confucius once offered the following dictum:  “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand." (For more information about the theory and critique of experiential learning, please visit:  http://reviewing.co.uk/research/experiential.learning.htm#axzz3fjMx6XCP.) 

TREK was inspired by our belief that healthy lifestyles, connecting with nature and unplugging from technology, participating in activities that may be outside a youth’s previous experience or comfort zone, can all provide opportunities for youth to expand their world view, promote pro-social relationships, and environmental stewardship. LUK has been providing adventure-based, experiential programming since the early 1980’s. A resurgence internally and in the field has brought us full circle to again providing this type of therapeutic intervention. The Agency was accredited by the Council on Accreditation in 2002 and remains in good standing as a wilderness therapy program. LUK has developed adventure-based, experiential learning models for many different populations and clinical presentations.

LUK Inc. was awarded a grant from the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism (http://www.flutiefoundation.org) program to run a week long summer camp for 60 youth living with autism spectrum disorder and some of their typically developing siblings. While LUK’s TREK program provides adaptive AB/EL programming after-school, vacation and summer programming year round, 60 kids was a pretty audacious goal!

Our TREK camp ran from 6/29/2015 to 7/3/2015 and was a great success. The camp was located on the grounds of the Harrington outdoor center and kids had access to the low and high ropes challenge course, kayaks/canoes, water fun and sand play, gaga ball, field games, arts and crafts and more. Families were encouraged to drop in, come with and spy on our shenanigans and many did just that.

The camp program was enhanced by a grant awarded to LUK by the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services (http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/dds/) that creates an Urban Youth Collaboration, intended to provide training and internships for young people interested in working in the field of human services and to work with youth with Developmental Delay and ASD. TREK staff did training with this young adult intern group prior to the camp, and they joined us in providing a truly memorable experience for everyone involved. Watching parents beam, kids swapping phone numbers and signing each others TREK t-shirts might seem like a sort of underwhelming achievement.  However, for many of these kids this was the first time they had the opportunity to be a part of a large group and experience what so many typically developing kids do regularly. Unfortunately, for many youth in our program who experience mental health or ASD disabilities, navigating a social landscape and reading social cues is a daily struggle.

We chose this week as it is the break between Individual Educational Plan (special education) programming, which can be disruptive and dis-regulating for youth living with ASD. The loss of structure and routine can cause kids to lose gains, and often regress. We have been receiving e-mails and phone stating:

“I just wanted to thank you for having M. at your camp.  He had the best time!  The activities were awesome, and the whole staff was phenomenal!!  I can't tell you how much we appreciated it!!  I wish you much success for a camp next year, and pray that things work out for you.  Thank you again!” and

“Hello, i just wanted to let you know that V and S really enjoyed camp. Your programs are fantastic. I was hoping you had other programs going on that they could be involved in. Thank you!”

This camp is a result of years of program planning and evaluation.  LUK’s TREK-Synergy program incorporates both feedback from families and research. We know that youth with ASD need a structured, predictable routine in order to navigate their world. In polling our families and communities regarding needs for youth with ASD, vacation programming was identified as a critical need. Parents and research both tell us that a regression of acquired skills happens for this population when there are periods of low structure and disrupted routine. Research on camps has found common factors that produce positive social outcomes, resulting from enhancement of one’s self constructs. These constructs were defined as: self-esteem, self-concept, self-knowledge, self-perception, self-worth, self-confidence, and self-image.

LUK is dedicated to helping all youth achieve their full potential. We plan to continue to design and implement programs that strengthen children and families in Central Massachusetts, especially youth living with ASD who could benefit from pro-social, healthy, and positive youth development.

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