Saturday, July 26, 2008

Day camp lets special kids get their kicks

Summit Academy fits the bill


LEOMINSTER— As far as summer camps go, this one isn’t much to write home about to mom and dad.

There’s no archery, no lake for swimming, no campfire sing-alongs. There’s not a marshmallow to be found for roasting.

Yet parents from as far away as Andover are driving past the traditional summer camps to Leominster, where they drop off their son or daughter at a day camp in the Summit Academy School at 365 Lindell Ave.

To 7-year-old Brandon Moss, it’s the best camp in the world, even though he travels 45 minutes each way to attend. Here, he learns martial arts and loves it. For his mother, Kelly, it means a 5 a.m. wake-up and $80 a week in gas to drive round trip from Oxford.

Inside the school’s small auditorium, the class — mostly boys 7 to 10 years old — practices an age-appropriate, therapeutic version of martial arts.

They shout out the numbers 1 to 10 in Japanese while performing a series of jumping front kicks and arm-pumping thrusts.

They live with Asperger’s syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder), attention deficit disorders or other developmental disorders.

Standing on checkered floor mats, Brandon doesn’t see this as therapy to build strength, self-confidence and respect. He thinks it’s just fun.

But this modest day camp is the only one of its kind in Central Massachusetts — and only one of five in the state, according to Frustrated with the limited options in their communities, parents of children with learning and social disorders are willing to commute long distances every day despite the early morning wake-up time and high gas prices.

Children such as Brandon usually don’t qualify for summer programs in their towns because they are classified as highly functioning, meaning they won’t lose their skills over the summer, unlike those with severe cases of autism, said Susan Loring, director of the Autism Resource Center in West Boylston. Her state-funded center is a resource for more than 1,200 families in the area. Since these children have poorer social skills, it’s challenging for them to fit in with others at a regular day camp. Ms. Loring said the Summit camp is a welcome relief in Central Massachusetts.

Half of the children who go to the camp travel 30 minutes or more. Designed for children who struggle in a traditional public school setting, the Summit Academy is a private, year-round school with a modified program for learning and social disorders. The camp, which is in its inaugural season, costs $150 per week and runs until Aug.1. There is no financial assistance, but some school districts, Groton-Dunstable for one, have paid for six students to attend.

Daniel DiMezza, director of the Summit Academy School, said more than 40 children per week have signed up. Since building on the child’s emotional and social needs is important, the camp takes advantage of teaching moments when they happen, he said.

Jimmy Nason, 7, enrolled at Summit in April. As a first-grade student at the Hubbardston Center School, he was often overwhelmed in class and would curl up under his desk. He was diagnosed at age 3 with PDD-NOS, which is similar to Asperger’s syndrome.

Lissette Nason, Jimmy’s mother, said he is at par with other children his age academically, but socially he was evaluated way below his grade level. At times disruptive, he often spent four of his six-hour school days in the principal’s office, sent by frustrated teachers because he couldn’t grasp the imaginary elements of particular school assignments.

“He couldn’t write a story about being a bear,” Ms. Nason said. Equally frustrated with the way her son was treated, she added, “You wouldn’t penalize a child who couldn’t run a 50-yard dash.”

Since coming to Summit, Jimmy appears to be doing better. At the start of the martial arts class, he bows as he enters the room and stands on his spot on the mat, marked with a T. Wearing a blue Nike basketball outfit and skinny as a string bean, Jimmy shouts out commands with the others, “When I control my ‘T,’ I control me.”

Tammaris Mitchell is the teacher, or sensei. Referring to the program as martial arts therapy, she said the goal is to work on the whole child, not just the academic portion. Aside from developing eye-hand coordination, the program also focuses on how to identify and manage personal space and establish non-verbal communication, traits not easily learned by children like Jimmy and Brandon.

In class the students recite their creed: always to do their best, accept responsibility and show respect for others.

The lessons learned in Ms. Mitchell’s class enable the children to function for the rest of their camp day, which includes tennis, arts and crafts, and an extended school year of math, science and English.

Late in the afternoon Jimmy heads home with his mother, eager to teach his sister how to count in Japanese.

The parking lot is jammed with cars as Brandon begins his long ride home. He will rise early to attend his next martial arts class on time. This is important, according to the school handbook, because anyone can be a sensei if willing to be dedicated.

1 comment:

RHurst said...

I would love to get my son move involved with autism activities. I am willing to try anything to see if it would help. My other son wants me to find some acting camps here in New Jersey for him to go to. It would be great to have extra time to spend with my autistic son.