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Archive for Saturday, August 11, 2007

Camp staff, students work with children to break through communication challenges

August 11, 2007

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A KU student works with a child at the Sertoma-Schiefelbusch Communication Camp during the June session at the Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds.

A KU student works with a child at the Sertoma-Schiefelbusch Communication Camp during the June session at the Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds.

For one child, it may be making a friend.

For another, it could be working up the courage to join in an activity with his peers. And for another, it might be pointing at a picture to show her parents which of the day's activities she liked best.

The children at the Sertoma-Schiefelbusch Communication Camp can make breakthroughs in many ways. The camp, conducted every summer, ran during late June this year at the Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds.

About two-thirds of the 90 children at the camp had communication challenges. Some children have hearing impairments, some have speech disorders and some have autism, Down syndrome or other disabilities.

The camp's goal is to help the children improve their communication and social skills through activities - such as singing, making scrapbooks and pretend "camping" in outdoor tents - that involve interaction and cooperation with the other campers. The activities give the kids some fun, but they have a distinct purpose, said Matt Gillispie, a camp faculty member.

"As people with typical communication skills, we take for granted some of the social skills we use every day," Gillispie said.

Gillispie is also a faculty member at Kansas University's Schiefelbusch Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic, which sponsors the camp and staffs it with clinical faculty, graduate and undergraduate KU students, and other volunteers. Jane Wegner, the clinic's director, leads the camp.

Intensive interaction

Wegner said the low ratio of staff to campers - about 2-to-1 - lets the staff focus on personalized goals for each camper with communication challenges. Some campers are unable to speak, and the staff may encourage them to point at pictures to show which activities they enjoyed. The staff may encourage other campers to make new friends or to mediate disagreements.

Wegner said helping the campers build relationships and friendships might be the most important goal of the camp.

"Some of these kids don't really have friends," Wegner said. "Their communication skills inhibit them from forming friendships."

Tracey Dopheide, a KU graduate student in speech-language pathology, supervised one group of campers to fulfill a practicum requirement. She said one of her campers began the two-week camp too nervous to speak to any of the other campers. But by the beginning of the second week, he couldn't wait until his group's discussion time to tell everyone about his experiences the day before.

"Seeing how much they interact from day one, seeing their relationships grow, is just amazing," Dopheide said.

The camp is valuable for Dopheide and the other students who work there too, Wegner said. Many of the students aim to be children's clinicians, but their experience has been mostly in one-on-one interaction.

But she said the camp and its social interaction educate the students on what she called the "So what?" factor: the significance of children's communication advances in real-life interaction.

"The camp is a lot of hard work for a lot of people," Wegner said. "But watching the kids in the environment, enjoying themselves, is great."

Kelsey, a 9-year-old camper, named off a list of the friends she'd made at the camp: Juliana, Peter, Rosco.

"I like to play games like rock-paper-scissors and 'Simon says,'" Kelsey said.

Fun for everyone

Wegner said the campers without communication challenges - about one-third of them - also got to have a fun time, make friends and learn about the camp's theme. This year's theme was "A trip across the United States," and the campers learned about a different U.S. region each day.

She said the campers without communication challenges could also learn to build relationships with people different from them.

"When they have a child who's different in their classrooms, they don't have the same apprehensions or concerns," Wegner said.

The camp costs $100, but only $20 for children with communication challenges. The Lawrence Sertoma Club paid for the remainder of those children's fees.

The Sertoma Club raises money for the camp each year with a barbecue cook-off, and the club also provides a few volunteer staff members. The club has supported the camp for five of its seven years.

The Schiefelbusch clinic, in KU's Haworth Hall, serves about 130 people of all ages from the Lawrence area with communication difficulties.

The clinic also held a teen communication camp for the first time this year, during July at Haworth.

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