by Nikole Gianopoulos
The campers gather on the floor wearing their homemade safari hats, vests and binoculars. Oohs and aahs are heard amongst the crowd as zoo educator Chase Osborne displays a long black, slimy snake. The kids hold their magic binoculars up to get a closer look. Unable to control their excitement, the campers eagerly ask what animal is next. Out comes a big tortoise named Thor. The bright-eyed campers point out that the tortoise makes a swimming motion like the turtle Crush from the Pixar movie Finding Nemo. The kids bravely and enthusiastically touch the final animal, an alligator, while asking their final questions.
Camp W.I.L.L.D. stands for writing, inspiring, language and literacy development and is sponsored by the Comprehensive Community Clinic and the Speech Language Pathology program at the University of West Georgia. The camp is in its fifth year and is open to all children ages 5-12 and encourages children with special needs along with their siblings to attend. The campers rotate through three stations each day: arts and crafts, music and movement, and science. Speech-language and literacy activities are integrated in each station using age appropriate techniques. The camp featured a safari theme this year and invited a special guest, The ZooMobile Outreach Program, from Zoo Atlanta to pay a visit.
“I knew they provided a great program that was based on the Georgia standards, and they talk a lot about what we are studying here at the camp, in addition to bringing the live animals,” informs Director of Clinical Experiences and the Comprehensive Community Clinic Dr. Laura Smith. “They also offer the touch component with the animals, and I knew it would be a great culminating activity for the kids.”
A smile quickly turned to a frown whenever a child had to stop touching an animal, for the next camper to have a turn. “My favorite part was touching the alligator, because it felt so soft,” says camper, Raylin Smith.
Over half of the campers have attended the camp in previous years. “When we first started coming to the camp, Grayson could just say two or three words. I couldn’t tell if he was hurting or if he wanted something to drink,” explains Tanya Partin, mother of Grayson Partin, who is autistic, and Gabriele Partin, both of whom are attending camp for the third year in a row. “Now he can say a full sentence, when three years ago he could hardly say anything at all.”
The campers with special needs are assigned to clinicians who are UWG graduate students. The assigned clinicians stay with the camper from the second they arrive at camp until the second they depart. “We’re learning from him,” mentions one of Grayson’s clinicians, Stefania Schewe.
“The first day he wouldn’t even look at us, but now he considers us his friends.” adds Grayson’s other clinician, Julianne Evelti.
In efforts to promote continuity the campers read the “Jungle Book” for the safari theme carried on through each rotation. “They made a beaded snake in arts and crafts. In the science station, they talked about how snakes molt,” says instructor of communication sciences and disorders, Adra Mayfield. “Then the campers went outside and blew bubbles that were designed to look like a snake. In the music and motion session, the kids listened to music while slithering like a snake on the floor.”
The ZooMobile Outreach Program requires that the location they’re presenting at be within a 65 mile radius of Zoo Atlanta. Despite UWG being within a 66 mile radius of Zoo Atlanta, the program still came. The Atlanta zoo uses a collection of educational animals that are selected based off of their mobility, tractability and relevance to the zoo. The educators go through intensive training to provide an entertaining and educational program.
“I love interacting with the children, I find it heart-warming. I like to know that I’m making a difference,” says Chase. “Some people are afraid of snakes or other animals, and I want to educate them and let them know that these animals are our friends.”
Atypical and typical children and parents and clinicians exchanged laughs and smiles during the presentation as the program united a diverse group of individuals. “My favorite animal was the snake,” says camper Dalton Harrison, who wanted the program to last longer. “I wanted to take the snake home with me, but my mom wouldn’t let it inside the house.”
While reflecting on her interaction with Camp WI.L.L.D. over the years, Tanya says, “The staff here let the campers know that everyone is different and it is okay to be different. I would recommend this camp to anyone.” Tanya will be returning to Camp W.I.L.L.D. with her sons next summer and anticipates even more benefits that the camp has to offer.
For more information about the Comprehensive Community Clinic, please visit www.westga.edu/ccc.
For more information about The ZooMobile Outreach Program, please visit www.zooatlanta.org/home/book_a_program/schools_and_groups/zoomobile#ff_s=trhrw.