Breaking Ground 114 - Creating Belonging at Girl Scouts of Middle TennesseeBy Lauren Reichstein, Camp and Adventure Programs manager, Girl Scouts of Middle TN
Lauren Reichstein is the Manager of Camp and Adventure Programs with Girl Scouts of Middle TN and has been an active member in the camping industry for over 15 years.
As a camp director hired to work at a camp that I had never seen, I walked into the Camp Holloway lodge and was impressed. “We have accessible entrances,” I thought, “and our buildings are made for wheelchairs!” Indeed, Camp Holloway and Camp Sycamore Hills have a lot to offer.
- Both have accessible shower houses and buildings and a zero entry pool.
- Camp Holloway has a sidewalk and paved road system leading to cabins and an accessible platform tent unit.
But we have come to realize that accessibility is not just a “ramp.” It’s a mindset. More than that, it directly connects to the core values of Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee. We build “girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.” We want our campers to feel empowered, so that they can pursue their goal and interests. What better way to support them in this pursuit than by supporting each camper’s needs?
On a personal level, I have seen the difference it makes when campers who are singled out in other situations (for example, having to bring special food or being pulled to a different class in school, etc.) can come and have a similar experience as everyone else. Belonging is important, and being inclusive shows our campers they belong, and are wanted.
At summer camp, we make our dining hall experience a seamless one. Campers with allergies eat the same or similar meals as everyone else. Alternate options are available without question for campers who don’t like a meal or have sensory issues.
Outside of the dining hall, our staff are trained to understand different disabilities and how to best support these campers. That includes how to assist campers who:
- might become dysregulated easily,
- have sensory challenges, or
- need more explicit instructions and re-direction.
Though we are not a medical facility, campers with medical or physical needs can usually work their treatments into our camp day. We have had campers living with a variety of diagnoses, including:
- Type 1 diabetes,
- and cystic fibrosis.
Our health staff checks in with parents who indicate that their camper may need extra help or an accommodation before they come to camp. In general, we ask families to partner with us if their camper needs help accessing camp independently so that we can help them have the best possible camp experience.
Despite these steps, some families have shared experiences that have shown us that we could be doing more. We consulted with leaders in the camping industry (particularly those which specialize in camping for people with physical or intellectual disabilities), the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, and occupational therapists on summer staff to help guide our trajectory. Some of the things we’ve done include:
- Updating our materials to better explain what support needs we can accommodate
- Changing our pre-camp questions to invite information and strategies that will make campers successful
- Asking families for relevant information from school IEPs and 504 plans.
These changes allow our camp staff to ask knowledgeable questions and to know how to help campers be successful from the moment they arrive.
We are also partnering with the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities to provide feedback on our forms and processes, the language we use to describe our accommodations, and training for our staff. We’re especially excited to have training sessions that will teach staff how to adapt activities to accommodate campers with varying needs in a way that benefits the entire group. We want campers to feel like they’re all having the same experiences whenever possible. We want to celebrate ways that campers and staff can support each other. We look forward to continuing to develop programming and facilities that are accessible to all and to build partnerships with organizations that can help in ways that we cannot.
Campers interested in coming to Camp Holloway or Camp Sycamore Hills with a troop or for summer camp (not required to be a Girl Scout) can visit our summer camp website at www.gsmidtn.org/summer-camp or can contact Lauren Reichstein, the Manager of Camp and Adventure Programs, at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information on how we work with campers who have differing abilities and what accommodations we can offer can be found under the title, “Who Comes to Camp?” If families believe their camper may need accommodations to have an independent experience, we invite them to connect with us prior to registering. Though we can’t accommodate all needs, we have many plans in place and many options to consider. We look forward to welcoming all our campers this summer!
The How-Tos of Belonging: Training for Camp Staff
By Ashley Edwards Hill, Assistant to the Executive Director, TN Council on Developmental Disabilities
This spring, Council staff were asked to provide an overview of disability and potential accommodations to nearly 70 camp staff for Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee. Leaning into the Council’s work with behavioral health and the principles of the Developmental Disabilities Act, the training focused on 5 foundations:
- All humans need to feel like they belong.
- Disability is a natural part of the human experience.
- Disability does not mean inability.
- Behavior is communication of a need met or unmet.
- The expert about the child in front of you, is the child in front of you.
Staff from both Camp Holloway (Millersville) and Camp Sycamore Hills (Ashland City) engaged in dialogue about real examples from previous camp experiences, connected with their own personal connection to disability, and asked important questions about how best to support campers of all abilities while at camp. Nearly half of camp staff identified as an immediate family member of someone with a disability, and a third identified as a person with a disability themselves.
“When a camper is seen only as their inability or are regularly reminded of their perceived capacity, they take on that identity for better or for worse. It doesn’t matter whether a child has a disability or not – that’s too heavy for any human to carry,” said Ashley Edwards Hill, who led the trainings this summer. “If our ultimate goal is for every girl to feel as though she belongs at camp, that’s our starting place – that’s our default when thinking about potential accommodations or group interactions.”
Camp staff began receiving campers on June 4. Campers will enjoy both day and overnight camp opportunities, with Camp Sycamore Hills hosting a calendar of equestrian camps. For campers who want to try out camp with an adult family member, Girl Scouts of Middle TN also hosts a Camp Y’all opportunity. To learn more about camp opportunities each summer, visit https://gsmidtn.org/summer-camp/.
About this organization
Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place. As Girl Scouts, girls discover the fun, friendship, and power of girls together. Girls grow courageous and strong through a wide variety of enriching experiences, such as field trips, skill-building sports clinics, community service projects, cultural exchanges, and environmental stewardships. Girl Scouts helps girls develop their full individual potential; relate to others with increasing understanding, skill, and respect; develop values to guide their actions and provide the foundation for sound decision making; and contribute to the improvement of society through their abilities, leadership skills, and cooperation with others. To learn more about Girl Scouting or to connect with a troop in your area, visit www.girlscouts.org.
Ashley Hill joined the Council in 2018. She previously worked in the education field, where teaching students with disabilities became a passion for her. Her main responsibilities include supporting the Executive Director and Council members, meeting planning and coordination, and special projects. Ashley began as a Girl Scout as 2nd grader in New York and has served as a Girl Scout troop leader in Middle TN for 3 years. She currently helps to lead the area's largest multi-level troop.