Ramon Schulz-Wiebe holds up a tennis racket, ready to swing.
“Ready?” says friend Zoey Moore. “One, two, three!”
Zoey pitches the soft, plastic ball to Ramon. He swings, and misses, and the two continue to smile broadly. Ramon beeps a horn on his motorized wheelchair several times as Zoey re-positions her own wheelchair to get a bit closer to Ramon.
They try over and over again, switching up who’s hitting and who’s pitching. Eventually, Ramon hits the ball which sails back to Zoey, tapping her on the shoulder. The two crack up laughing, as do the therapists and volunteers surrounding them.
Zoey and Ramon, age 14 and 13 respectively, are two of a dozen kids who were part of the Fraser Valley Child Development Centre (FVCDC) Therapy Camp at Rosedale Traditional school in Chilliwack Aug. 12 to 16.
The camp is unique in that it brings a number of different therapists together to learn from each other, all while interacting with school-aged children who have various disabilities. The FVCDC event gives the kids a “typical camp experience which they might not otherwise get,” says camp co-ordinator Mike VanderGaag, who starts his Masters of Physical Therapy at UBC on Monday.
FVCDC has been running Therapy Camp for more than 10 years. The non-profit organization has locations in Chilliwack, Abbotsford and Mission and provided services for children with disabilities and their families.
At Therapy Camp, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and speech and language pathologists pair up with each other, along with volunteers, to offer treatment for the children. Each camper is paired with one therapist, one adult volunteer and one junior volunteer. There are about 20-30 volunteers at the therapy camp, aged nine to adult. A few volunteers are even past campers.
“We provide treatment in a fun way, through play,” says physiotherapist Kim Cox. “[The therapists] also have the opportunity to sit and reflect afterwards and share our experiences. It’s a win-win-win for everyone — the volunteers, therapists and campers. We learn from one another, we are all gaining from it.”
The camp is comprised of an hour of one-on-one therapy (12 therapists and 12 campers) in the morning, and another hour in the afternoon. In between the morning and afternoon sessions, everyone takes part in activities such as baking, water fights, crafts, yoga and music therapy.
The campers get a lot out of it, too.
“They’re learning about friendship and co-operation and self-regulation. Some are learning bike riding skills, others are working on mobility, stairs, and climbing,” says Cox.
Each session, kids are challenged in different ways to broaden their skills, all in a play-based situation. Throughout the week, campers interact with one another and the different therapists.
“The peer-to-peer interactions are really important and allow them to engage with people who are similar to them and also people who aren’t. We can all learn from each other. We can all learn no matter what our abilities are,” says VanderGaag.
They say it’s been really cool to see a lot of friendships have been made because these kids often don’t get to meet other children who also face challenges. In school there may only be a few other kids with similar disabilities, but at camp they can relate to everyone.
“What’s beautiful is you see that compassion and caring coming out in the campers for their fellow campers. If someone’s upset, they’re there for them,” says Cox.
VanderGaag recalls two campers last year — one who’s in a wheelchair and one who uses a walker — who connected toward the end of camp. They both returned to camp this year and have been inseparable.
This year, the boy in the walker “he gets behind that wheelchair and he pushes him,” says VanderGaag and refuses to let someone help him. “It’s pretty special to see the smile on both of their faces when they’re just walking around.”
Each day parents drop their kids off at 10 a.m. and pick them up at 3 p.m. They get a much-needed break as sometimes it can be exhausting for them, adds Cox.
“What’s really nice is that they have confidence and faith that their kid is going to be safe and have fun because we have the resources and the knowledge of all these therapists and volunteers who they feel safe leaving their kid with, which is quite rare for these families,” says VanderGaag.
“My supervisor calls it the ‘nirvana of therapy’ because we get this once a year and everybody totally appreciates the fact that we can learn from one another,” says Cox. “Then we take those skills back with us for the whole year” and adapt them for each therapist.
At the end of the week, the families were invited to camp for the last hour where the therapists and volunteers talk about each child in front of everybody and what they did really well throughout the week.
“You get to know the kids pretty well over one week and you get to know their quirks and their strengths. It’s pretty awesome to see how amazing all these kids are in their own individual way,” says VanderGaag.