Mark Nowak, a teacher at Vermont South Special School, is a big believer in the benefits of taking students with intellectual disabilities on camp.
Even so, looking out at the roiling waves of Lorne Beach last term, his belly was filled with nerves.
“The surf at Lorne is very safe, but it’s also pretty big,” he laughs, recalling the crashing waves at the senior surf camp. “But the second they were out there, even though it was big, they were just going for it. So it really showed us – and the kids – that they have amazing resilience.”
That’s the goal. Catering for kids across east Melbourne, from Doncaster to Healesville, Vermont’s entrance criteria involves an IQ test with a score between 50 and 70. “That’s a broad umbrella of intellectual disability, from kids on the spectrum to those with ADHD,” Mark explains.
“It’s all about giving access to a group of kids who don’t normally get to hang out together. If they get to go surfing and then sit down at night at a table and have spaghetti all together, it’s a real highlight.”
Because the catchment area is so expansive, students don’t enjoy the same level of connection as most mainstream primary schools, which is part of the reason summer camps are so important, Mark argues. “It’s all about giving access to a group of kids who don’t normally get to hang out together. If they get to go surfing and then sit down at night at a table and have spaghetti all together, it’s a real highlight.”
Surf camp memories keep on giving. “It’s a touchstone throughout the year, because we do things around the camp like writing activities or PowerPoint presentations,” Mark adds.
The main challenge is the anxiety-inducing disruption to relied-upon routine. “For these kids in particular, routine is so important. They get off the bus and come to school, then they get back on the bus and see mum and dad. Taking away that going home part is really tricky. So often you’ll find they’ll be fine until it comes to about four or five o’clock and then get really worried.”
Mark and his colleagues try to counter that by building in new routines before they go, prepping kids on what they need to pack and showing them pictures of the accommodation, right down to which dorm they’ll be sleeping in, and who they’ll be sharing with.
“You’re reassuring them that it’s going to be different, but that different is good,” he says. “That’s probably one of the main things they get out of it. Life is full of change, and a camp encapsulates that. It’s important that they get to experience a different routine.”
It’s not all plain sailing for the teaching cohort either. “It can be really tiring and occasionally traumatic. I mean, you don’t sleep; it’s really hard to relax. But it’s an incredible experience for us too.”
Particularly when the results are so apparent. One autistic student who is normally very withdrawn and prone to tantrums was transformed by the experience. “Turns out she absolutely loves the water and was just gung-ho for hours at a time, hammering back out into the surf, catching wave after wave.”
Joanne Larkin, Mark’s former colleague at senior special school Heatherwood in Donvale, has witnessed similar transformations in the students who attend the bi-annual USA Camp she organises.
Assistant coach of Australia’s Paralympian basketball team, the Pearls, Joanne has a younger sister who is autistic. She is passionate about the opportunities presented by both sport and travel in helping special school students thrive.
“Building independence is the main thing,” she says, adding that, “You couldn’t fit all the benefits on one list. The social skills of the kids who go on camp improve so much, and they gain that ability to do things without mum and dad standing next to them.”
USA Camp’s itinerary changes with each trip, taking in everywhere from Vegas, to Boston, to New York. Specialising in a sport-focused class where students spend half their week at Knox Basketball Stadium and a nearby gym, Joanne is all about encouraging outdoor activities – and they always drop into Disneyland.
“It’s about taking them out of their comfort zone and letting them know, ‘You’ll be OK.'”
For some kids, the trip can be overwhelming. One such student, Ben, who has cerebral palsy, was particularly nervous about taking part. His mum was stressed too, but Joanne convinced them both that Ben was an ideal fit for the camp.
However, reluctant to rely on a wheelchair, a big day touring San Francisco on foot pushed him to the edge. “We’d walked from the Palace of Fine Arts, along the waterfront and across the Golden Gate Bridge,” she says. “We gave him a big rest the next day, but he came to me in tears, saying he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to manage.”
Convincing him to try a wheelchair, Ben was glad he stayed the course. “He was constantly saying, ‘Thank you Jo, this is the best thing I have ever done. I’m so happy and proud of myself.’ That’s when you get a tear in the eye and realise all the organisation is worth it.”
Like many USA Camp attendees, Ben flourished on return to Heatherwood, ultimately becoming school vice captain. It’s something Joanne sees time and again, noting that during an Alaskan cruise last year, her initially shy students soon had other tourists up and dancing during evenings taking in live bands.
“At the beginning of camp, when you ask them to pack their bags, they just stand there looking at you, but by the end of the trip they’re already packed when I come round to check in on them,” she says.
While some of the autistic kids worry about getting things wrong, she reassures them that it’s alright to make a mistake. “It’s about taking them out of their comfort zone and letting them know, ‘You’ll be OK. What’s the worst that can happen while packing a case?’”
Cruises will be off the itinerary for a while thanks to the current COVID crisis, and plans may have to be shelved for next year’s USA Camp too – but nothing will stop Joanne from rounding up the troops. “We might head to the Gold Coast instead and take in the theme parks there,” she wonders aloud. “I won’t let them have nothing. It’s not in my nature.”