On June 10-14, The Church of the Good Shepherd, Kansas City and Father Galen Snodgrass generously opened their doors and allowed us to transform the church basement into a summer camp for a dozen adolescents with social challenges.Jeff Janney Five-minute read. Resources
On June 10-14, The Church of the Good Shepherd, Kansas City and Father Galen Snodgrass generously opened their doors and allowed us to transform the church basement (including the Parish Hall, conference room and a couple of Sunday school classrooms) into a summer camp for a dozen adolescents with social challenges.
I am a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in the Kansas City Northland. For nearly 20 years, I have been primarily serving adolescents and young adults with developmental disabilities, including Autism Spectrum. Children with certain diagnoses such as autism struggle with many social challenges; chief among them are making and maintaining meaningful and mutually rewarding friendships. This is apparent for my client Levi (not his real name), an awkward middle school kid diagnosed with a developmental disability. He struggles to understand subtle yet significant social norms, particularly when they are constantly changing throughout his day based on when, where, and who he is engaging. His attempts to make or keep friends have typically been unsuccessful, and at times disastrous. His response to the teasing and bullying by classmates was to bully back. Eventually, he got good at sabotaging any prospects of friendship, as previous experiences had proven painful.
I have listened too long to the laments of parents and their hopes that their child might someday have an actual friend, a friend who genuinely wants to invite their son or daughter to a birthday party or just to hang out. In my practice, I can and do work to teach these young people a range of social/friendship skills. However, in an office setting, there is little occasion to actually practice these skills in real-time, with real-time coaching.
What started off as an intent to develop and facilitate a weekly friendship skills group quickly transformed into a crazy idea to hold a week-long friendship skills camp. But how would this be received? To my knowledge, nothing similar had been tried before, at least in the Kansas City northland. The theme of the camp was inspired by the Hasbro board game, Clue. With great hopes and unknown expectations, the curriculum and supporting activities for “Clue Summer Camp: Breaking the Friendship Code!” was launched and the flyers went out.
The central approach of this camp was to spend only 15 minutes in a classroom-style lecture to teach some fundamental principles of how to be social; namely, that there is value in showing others that you are interested in them. The brief classroom-style lesson was then followed by an opportunity to practice specific friendship skills while participating in various games and activities with peers. While engaging in fun activities with peers, the campers received real-time coaching and were positively reinforced when they naturally demonstrated appropriate behaviors for making and maintaining a friend.
The week’s activities started with an ice-breaker and get-to-know-you games. As the week went on, the activities’ social challenges increased, such as a team scavenger hunt on the church grounds, partner pizza making, and making ice cream sundaes (nothing brings teens together like junk food, no matter who you are!) The highlight of the week, for campers and staff alike, was a series of escape rooms, aka, the Sunday school classroom and conference rooms with makeover.
The week was a success! It certainly was not without its moments of “excitement.” But not only did it not fail miserably, but it also exceeded all expectations. At the end of each day, the campers left cheerfully looking forward to the next day, and at the end of the week asked when they can come back. One of many moments of success from the week included Levi, the camper who struggles with saying kind words to others who had already decided that friendships were not going to be a thing for him. Midway through the week, he and another camper were paired together to make a pizza, with the expectation that both must agree on how the pizza is built. Levi’s pizza partner, however, was a child with a severe reaction to dairy and hence is unable to eat cheese. Upon learning this, Levi’s quandary was visibly displayed on his face. After a few moments, he was overheard saying, “that’s OK, we don’t want cheese on our pizza.” A true example of showing another person that you are interested in them.
A big thank you to the Kansas City Zoo who donated free zoo tickets to each camper. This gift provided an opportunity for campers to reach out to one another after camp for a chance to relax outside of a structured setting. It remains to be seen whether or not this will happen, but several of the campers have been communicating with each other about getting together in the weeks since camp.
A big thank you also to Calvert’s Paving and the Malama Foundation for their generous support of this unique camp experience. Special thanks also goes to The Church of Good Shepherd, Fr. Snodgrass, and numerous parishioners who donated snacks, gave generous financial gifts to support camper scholarships and volunteered their time to serve snacks and hang out with the campers. This unique friendship camp experience could not have been possible without the generosity of others!
112…5Good will come to the one who is generous and lends freely, who conducts their affairs with justice Psalms 112:5