Camps Offer Special Fun for Kids with Special Needs

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For many adults, memories of summer camp may include learning to water ski, making macramé crafts, roasting marshmallows or even feeling a little homesick. But for parents of children with special needs, summer camp may seem like an unattainable fantasy. Whether your child requires wheelchair-accessible facilities, a special diet, medical staff or counselors who understand the full autism spectrum, camps across North Carolina offer a wide range of options – from day camps and overnight programs to camps that include siblings or have no fees.

Finding a camp that fits

The key is to start the search and registration process early. Connect with other parents of children with special needs who may have tips or have already vetted specific camps.

When considering a standard summer camp, ask about the facilities and medical staff to see if it offers what your child needs to be successful. Many local parks and recreation programs include options for children with disabilities, and some YMCAs welcome kids with special needs in summer day camps.

Balancing special treatment with can-do attitudes

If you're open to the overnight option and a short drive, many camps roll out the red carpet for kids who need a little extra attention.

Holly Bolton of Davidson, N.C., never imagined her children going to sleep-away camp. Eleanor, 9, and Jack, 7, have spinal muscular atrophy and use power wheelchairs to get around. But two years ago, a friend and camp volunteer told the Boltons about Victory Junction.

Located in Randleman, N.C., Victory Junction caters to special needs of all types, from craniofacial anomalies to hemophilia and cancer to spina bifida. While a week at camp costs about $2,500, there is no cost to the families whose children attend, thanks to sponsor support.

"We went to a family weekend … and we had the best time," Bolton says. "The camp is fully accessible; the wheelchairs can go up in a tree house, and [the kids] can play putt-putt, archery and bowling. When my husband and I talk about it, we agree that it was a life-changing experience."

Bolton says bonding with others and gaining confidence were the biggest takeaways from Eleanor and Jack's week at camp. "In the night hours in the cabins while they're unwinding for the day, they have discussions with other kids about their challenges," she says. "I think it is definitely confidence-building, and it gives them a chance to be around other people to prepare them for later in life."

Camp Carefree in Stokesdale, N.C., is another free, one-week overnight camp that welcomes children with special needs. From Neuro Week to Cancer Week to sessions for children with sickle-cell anemia and muscular dystrophy, Camp Carefree aims to emphasize what kids can do, not their illness or disability. There is even time reserved for siblings to attend.

"We call it the 'You Can Do It Camp,'" says Anne Jones, founder and executive director. "It is good for them to see that they can still do things."

Audrey Ganitopoulos, program director at the N.C. Therapeutic Riding Center in Mebane, agrees that the camp experience can build confidence and provide acceptance. The staff works with children who have autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, sensory integration disorder, Down syndrome, and other physical and cognitive issues. Siblings are welcome.

At the day camp, students spend the morning in the barn and take an hour-long riding lesson. The afternoon is filled with arts and crafts and learning to care for the center's chickens, pigs and goats.

"There are so many beneficial things children get out of being around animals," Ganitopoulos says. "For instance, students with autism can get to social interaction more easily through time with a horse."

The country atmosphere provides a calming influence, she says. "Our campers make a connection with their equine partners, and they gain patience and tolerance from the animals," Ganitopoulos says.

At Abilitations Children's Therapy & Wellness Center's Summer Musical Theater in Raleigh, counselors assign each child a role that suits his or her personality and abilities. T.R. Goins, a physical therapist at Abilitations, says licensed medical staff and a small number of students ensure that each child gets the most out of his or her experience.

This year, the staff will stage Toy Story. Children ages 5 and older with physical, cognitive, visual or hearing impairment can take part in the six-week camp that culminates in a production onstage at the Governor Morehead School in Raleigh.

Overcoming challenges builds confidence

Counselors who serve children with special needs stress that parents should not rule out physical activities. In fact, overcoming physical challenges may help broaden horizons and help children realize they can tackle a range of skills.

Camp Friendly, a day camp offered by the City of Raleigh Department of Parks and Recreation, offers children and teens with developmental and physical disabilities an opportunity to build confidence by participating in baseball, basketball, boating, camping, hiking, dance, theater, music, games, arts and crafts and a variety of other physical activities.

The Wrightsville Beach Surf Camp makes accommodations for children with special needs and their families who want to learn to surf.

Participants gain confidence and have fun, says Chelsea Thornhill, operations manager. "The surf lessons can help fill a void that having a grave illness can create," she says. "It's very healing."

Thornhill says children with any disability – ranging from those with autism to paraplegics – are welcome to take surf lessons, but a two-week notice helps ensure proper staffing the day your family attends.

"If your disability prohibits you from standing, you can still ride a wave on your stomach," she says. "We want to make sure if you need two or three instructors to help out, we have them ready. We hope to show people that they can do something completely new and different."

Some camp directors aim to fill a need that isn't covered by other camps, special needs or otherwise. Camp Royall in Pittsboro offers services throughout the year to people with autism and their families. The camp's summer program is a popular overnight option for a wide range of children on the autism spectrum.

Charlotte-area Camp Holiday fills a gap, too. Director Marcia Stern says it targets an often-underserved population: children ages 5 to 16 with Down syndrome. These kids learn about yoga, martial arts, music, nature, science and computers. Older children can take part in the Counselors in Training program, which offers leadership and team-building training.

"I want these children to be given the same opportunities as everyone else," Stern says.

Justin Thomas, camp coordinator and director of the American Diabetes Association Camp Carolina Trails in King, N.C., says the overnight camp for students in rising grades three through 11 who have diabetes, is assigned a staff of 35 counselors who also serve as role models.

"Thirty-three of them have diabetes," Thomas says. "They are great examples of how these kids can be happy, healthy, successful, go to college, get married and have a great career. It's so helpful to see others in their peer group and older people who are in the exact same shoes."

Camp Carolina Trails' 1-to-10 medical staff-to-camper ratio with a medical member in each cabin every night reassures concerned parents.

Children with specific dietary needs present their own set of challenges, and at least one camp has addressed this. Kids with celiac disease who require a gluten-free diet can enjoy Camp Kanata in Wake Forest without worrying about food during Gluten-Free Week Aug. 5-11.

Researching, asking questions and touring the facilities help parents feel more comfortable before registering for a specific camp or session. Follow your child's individual interests to begin your search.  n

Anne Woodman is a Morrisville-based writer and mother of two.

For More Information & Resources

  • Find contact information for each camp mentioned above in the following list::

    Abilitations Children's Therapy & Wellness Center Inc., Raleigh. The website has a helpful "Resource Corner" to aid your search efforts. 919-844-6611 or

    Camp Carefree, Stokesdale. Free, overnight camp for specific health issues and disabilities. 336-427-0966 or

    Camp Carolina Trails, King. Overnight camp for children with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. 919-743-5400 or 888-342-2382 x3217 or

    Camp Holiday, Charlotte. Day camp for children with Down syndrome. 704-998-1740 or

    Camp Friendly, Raleigh.

    Camp Kanata, Wake Forest. Offers a Gluten-Free Week for children with celiac disease. 919-556-2661 or

    Camp Royall, Pittsboro. Overnight camp for children on the autism spectrum who are residents of North Carolina.

    North Carolina Therapeutic Riding Center, Mebane. Day camps for children with or without disabilities. 919-304-1009 or

    City Parks & Recreation Departments and YMCA programs often serve children with special needs; check ones near you.

    Victory Junction, Randleman. Free, overnight camp for a wide range of special needs. 336-498-9055 or

    Wrightsville Beach Surf Camp, Wrightsville. Surf lessons scheduled for children with special needs with two-week notice; also offers alopecia and cancer charity day camps. 866-844-7873 or

  • Check the Recreation and Enrichment resource listings category in the Carolina Parent Special Kids Guide for more options.
  • Check out ourcamp directory for a list of mainstream camps, if you'd like to explore those options for your child.


What to Know Before You Register


Jamie Harris of Morrisville, a former teacher and mother of an autistic child, suggests the following questions to ask when considering camps for children with special needs:

  • What is the camper-to-staff ratio? The fewer campers to each staff member, the better.
  • Are the teachers trained to work with special-needs children?
  • Are the facilities clean and accessible to your child, and do they meet his needs?
  • What activities will the campers be doing? How will they help your child achieve his goals?
  • Does the camp provide any transportation?
  • Can you apply for a scholarship if the camp is not free?
  • Also, be sure to register early to ensure a spot for your child.
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