UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Anna Prince, a junior majoring in rehabilitation human services, learned what it takes to work with a special needs population when she served as a counselor this summer at Camp Ramapo, an outdoor camp for children with social, emotional or learning challenges in Rhinebeck, New York.
Prince said she knew she always wanted to be a camp counselor, but her experience at Camp Ramapo far exceeded her expectations. She grew up in the State College area, and had never lived far away from home.
“A lot of the kids who came to the camp were in the same boat as me. The difference was that most of them were coming from communities that were not as accommodating to their unique needs,” Prince said. “Camp Ramapo is such an accepting and nurturing environment, for the campers and counselors alike, that it was easy to feel comfortable and at home there.”
Prince worked with a diverse group of campers from age 4 to 23 with a wide range of disabilities — from cognitively impaired children on the autism spectrum to children with behavioral issues from at-risk homes.
“At first, it was a little overwhelming and I didn’t understand how all of these completely different kids could participate in the same activities together,” Prince said. “The idea is that everyone has their own personal issues, but everyone wants the same thing: to find success. The campers learn to respect and support each other through all kinds of different obstacles.”
To prepare for the camp, Prince took part in a week-long intensive training orientation. She received training in behavioral intervention techniques and how to foster strong, positive relationships with all types of children and adults from different backgrounds.
“The truth is, it wouldn’t be uncommon to walk though the camp and see various kids screaming, running away, fighting, or just plain refusing to listen,” Prince said. “It was our job as counselors to stay calm, be positive, show the campers that we care about them and work with them to figure out the reasoning behind their noncompliance — all while keeping camper safety a priority.”
Prince said that she learned from her experience at camp the importance of flexibility. Following the schedule of activities was not always possible for Prince, but with the help of her co-counselors, she learned to alter the schedule to cater to individual campers’ needs.
Despite the many challenges Prince faced at Camp Ramapo, she said it was one of the most pleasing experiences of her life.
“Most of these kids have had to overcome more than I could ever imagine in their young lives, but they still manage to hold on not only to what makes them unique, but also what makes them kids,” Prince said.
Prince said she plans to study abroad in Santiago, Chile, in the spring and hopes to take a service-learning course that would allow her to volunteer with a nonprofit organization that provides services for kids and adults with disabilities in the Santiago area. She hopes to earn a master’s degree and, after graduation, become a behavior analyst specializing in autism.