Children with autism and other special needs have just returned home from two summer camps involved in our Summer with Purpose project. Find out how they spent their time there, what they learned, what their parents and specialists thought of the camps and what is in store for the future.
We trained staff from NGOs how to run camp sessions for children and young people with special needs, and allocated funds to enable organisations to run their own camps in various regions of the country. Sessions have already taken place in the village of Tolstobino in Nizhny Novgorod region and the town of Skadovsk in Ukraine, and are being organised in Petrozavodsk, Cherepovets, Georgia, Tula, Valdai, St Petersburg, Kostroma and Yaroslavl. The kids, their parents and the organisers are delighted with the results!
Why are summer camps important for children with autism?
We want kids with disabilities and their families to be able to work with qualified specialists all year round. During summertime, classes in schools and support centres are suspended for a few weeks but at summer camp, kids can continue with their lessons, learn new things and socialise with their peers.
The Summer with Purpose project has two goals:
– To give kids with special needs a real summer break that offers a range of developmental opportunities. At camp, the kids become more independent – for many of them, it is their first time away from their parents. In addition, they learn how to socialise with adults and their peers.
– To teach staff of NGOs evidence-based, up-do-date techniques for working with children with special needs.. We teach specialists simple but effective methods of helping children and adolescents with autism and other developmental disabilities to enjoy their time at camp. E.g.: how to organise the space effectively, how to help the kids socialise and understand the rules of games and how to ensure that the camp is comfortable for everyone there. The knowledge gained at the camp can be applied in practice all year round, and greatly facilitates the work of the specialists in general. They can also teach the new methods to colleagues, volunteers and parents.
For the Summer with Purpose project, we joined forces with the University of New Mexico. Our colleagues in the USA have been organising developmental summer camps for many years and were happy to share their experience. Naked Heart experts Tatiana Morozova and Svyatoslav Dobvnya are both visiting professors at the university and, since 2015, have been coordinating placements in New Mexico for specialists from Russia, which are funded by the Foundation.
Who did we train this year?
In spring, we held a competition and selected 10 organisations to take part in the project. Five of them were new to the project:
– RHEA Women’s Union (Georgia)
– “Doroga” (“Road”) youth union (Petrozavodsk)
– “Zhiznenny put” (“Life Journey”) foundation to support people with disabilities (Moscow)
– United Hearts Foundation (Ukraine)
– “Budushee est” (“There is a Future”) organisation (Vologda)
And five had already worked with us in previous years:
— “Malenkaya strana – My est!” (“Small country – We exist!”) (Tula)
— Naked Heart family support centre based at “Veras” parents’ organisation (Nizhny Novgorod)
— “Litsom k miry” (“Face to the World”) (Yaroslavl)
— “Otkryt mir” (“Open up the World”) (Kostroma)
— “Anton tut ryadom” (Anton’s Right Here”) (St Petersburg)
What did we teach the NGO staff in New Mexico?
The first group of specialists to attend the placement in New Mexico were those from our new partner organisations. The placement was coordinated by the Naked Heart experts, who met with Kathleen “Mo” Taylor – head of the project in New Mexico. Kathleen is an occupational therapist at the Center for Development and Disability at the University of New Mexico and has taken part in various Naked Heart projects in the past. During their introductory seminar, Kathleen and the experts discussed strategies for working with kids with autism.
The placement is unique in that all of the theoretical knowledge gained can be applied in practice then and there. The specialists were sent to the Rising Sun summer camp for children and adolescents with autism, and were really struck by the fact that the kids spend their time at camp completely unsupervised by their parents. This practice is already common in the USA but is new to many Eastern European countries. Usually, it is difficult for a child with autism to be surrounded by people that he or she does now know. However, the camp is organised in a way that ensures that all the children feel comfortable and enjoy the activities.
«I have never worked with such a challenging child. In our country, children like this simply do not go out. We are only just starting to see changes and inclusiveness, and the idea of summer camps is not being discussed at all yet. This programme allows us to take the first step towards ensuring that children with special needs lead fulfilling lives and get the chance to have a summer break» – Specialist from a regional NGO, talking about the placement.
The specialists took part in all the camp activities. Their aim was to learn methods that could be quickly adapted to the Russian context and used during camp sessions this summer.
For example, if a child was struggling to follow a daily routine, the specialists would create an activity schedule for him or her, using visual support. Visual support is the use of images or other visual objects to communicate information to a child who finds it difficult to understand or use speech. It can include photographs, drawings, or handwritten words or lists. Studies have shown that visual support is highly effective when communicating with people with autism.
Simple methods such as these greatly facilitate the work of specialists. The placement gave them many new ideas for improving the organisation of summer camps and making them more enjoyable and comfortable for the kids.
«I had heard a lot about support strategies – including at the forum, from Mo and from my Russian colleagues who had already participated in the project. But it is totally different actually being part of the magic of the camp. I was amazed by how every little detail is thought out in relation to each child, and by the level of support and respect for the individual.» – Specialist from a regional NGO, talking about the placement.
It is vital that the effectiveness of these methods is proven through independent research. Often, unproven methods are used in Russia when working with children with developmental disabilities. This wastes time and can also pose a risk to the child. Therefore, the Foundation’s projects only apply scientifically proven methods.
The second group of specialists to attend the placement were those with whom we worked last year. They were already familiar with the basic strategies, which they were using successfully at their own camps. We therefore gave them a chance to move on to the second stage of the project, during which they worked with older kids and learned to work in a team and train their colleagues.
«The camp gives all of us the chance to learn, and if something goes wrong there is always someone there to help make sure everything goes ok. I realised last year how important it is not only to gain knowledge, but also to discuss it all and share it with a team. Last year I was told that I could start teaching others.» – Specialist from a regional NGO, participant in the second stage of the project.
How did the camps in Tolstobino and Skadovsk go?
The most interesting part of the project is the opportunity to test new skills in practice at camps organised by the participating NGOs. Those who took part in the placement passed on everything they had learned in New Mexico to their colleagues. This year, more than 70 specialists and volunteers learned about new working methods thanks to the project.
«It was important to come here; we needed to see how the structure works, from the child to the camp director, how it all happens, and how to react and help. There are two of us from our organisation, and our combined experience will be very significant.» – Specialist from a regional NGO, talking about the placement.
We also allocated funds to seven NGOs to enable them to run their own summer camp sessions. Camps in Tolstobino in Nizhny Novgorod Region and Skadovsk in Ukraine have just taken place. The results amazed both parents and specialists.
Svetlana, mother of Dima, a young man with autism (Tolstobino): «A huge thank you to the educators for their hard work and skilful approach to working with our challenging children, which requires a great deal of patience. Special thanks on behalf of my Dima, for teaching him how to socialise with others. I never imagined that my son, who didn’t even speak, would be able to go up to someone he had never met before and ask a question, explain something, express a wish, be proactive and do as he was told.»
Ilya Markov, teacher and psychologist, Naked Heart Family Support Centre: «It was magical. The young people arrive here struggling to relate to the world and communicate with others, and leave a few days later with “new” family members and friends, having lived side-by-side with them at the camp. Support workers come here to gain knowledge, and leave with new experience.»
Natalia Pastushenko, from the United Hearts Foundation (Skadovsk): “For many of the kids, this was the first time they had been away from home and their parents, in an unfamiliar place. The schedule was very full. The kids swam in the sea, sunbathed on the beach, went to the disco, did arts and crafts, played games and attended workshops. Some of them learned how to get dressed, wash and eat independently, and mastered new words. The children returned from the camp completely different. It turns out that they can be independent!
The project has really paid off – the specialists have advanced professionally and achieved incredible results, the kids’ parents were able to have a proper break for the first time, and the children had an unforgettable experience that really benefitted them.»
The camp sessions are not over yet! Kids will shortly be setting off for Petrozavodsk, Cherepovets, Georgia, Tula, Valdai, St Petersburg, Kostroma and Yaroslavl.
We will also be seeing Kathleen “Mo” Taylor again. In August, she will be coming to Russia to observe camps run by the organisations that achieved the best results during last year’s placements. Furthermore, the project will continue at the sixth international Every Child Deserves a Family forum, at which we will be holding master classes on the Summer with Purpose project for anyone who wishes to learn more about it. We will of course keep you updated on how the project is progressing. Watch this space!
How you can support us
A big thank you to all those who ran with us and Guerlain in Paris in March this year and helped us raise funds for this project. Thanks also to all those who made donations to support the project. Thanks to you, this summer is special for kids from all over Russia, as well as Ukraine and Georgia. Do you want to help us do more? Click here to donate!
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