Utilizing activity groups grounded in principles of occupational therapy, Boston Fellow Nikoletta Livingston implemented a program at the Metropolis of Boston Camp (MBC) aimed at better engaging campers with developmental, behavioral, and physical challenges with the camp program and facilitating communication and genuine peer relationships amongst all campers.
Her program is a revival of sorts of MBC’s Embracing Children (EC) program for campers with disabilities. As an MBC camper for many years and later in staff and administrative positions, Livingston watched EC develop and flourish over time. She also saw engagement in EC wane in recent years as campers who were critical to its success aged out of MBC, a Greek Orthodox faith-based camp for youth in ages 8-18 Having experienced the benefits of the inclusion program as both a camper and staff member, Livingston recognized the need for ongoing support for campers with disabilities.
“My hope is that this program will serve as a method by which all kids at MBC can develop authentic and meaningful relationships with their fellow campers. No camper should feel that MBC is not for them,” said Livingston, an occupational therapy doctoral student at Boston University. “I want to see every child feel they belong and have the opportunity to thrive during their time at camp.”
While summer camp is meant to be a carefree time of swimming, hiking, discovery and bonding, ensuring that all children are thriving in such an active, highly social environment is easier said than done. For kids who never been away from home, or those living with a disability of any kind, camp can be a source of great anxiety. Livingston enjoyed meeting the challenge of easing the way for those kids at MBC, located in Contoocook, NH.
One of her proudest moments came at the close of a camp week last summer, when she watched four 10-year-old campers literally jumping up and down with excitement at the realization that they all lived within an hour’s drive of each other. They gathered their parents and began planning a “playdate” right then and there.
“That moment made me so happy, proud of the steps they had taken, thankful to their staff members for investing so much time and energy into their experience, and overjoyed by the friendship these boys had made,” said Livingston.
The interaction was a dramatic difference from the start of the week, when two of those campers—both of whom were part of the EC program—struggled socially and experienced homesickness that prevented them from engaging with peers and participating in camp activities. Livingston worked closely with both of the boys’ staff members, providing encouragement and support, suggestions for group activities, and attempting to get other campers to draw these two in. Nothing seemed to be making a difference.
But sure enough, during the camp Olympics later in the week, Livingston saw the two boys actively participating with other campers for the first the time, thanks to a fellow camper who proved to be a leader in their cabin and was able to engage them in the activity.
“They were having a great time,” said Livingston. “The rest of the week continued to improve from there.”
Livingston credits such successes to the receptiveness of MBC staff, and their willingness to take whatever steps necessary to make the experience the best it could be for each and every camper.
“Many staff expressed specific interest in learning more about working with campers with diverse needs, and shared some wonderful ideas and insight about how to involve all their campers,” she said. “I’ve been so encouraged by that response and it makes me incredibly hopeful about the future of this program.”
Indeed, Livingston is already working with the MBC administrative team to determine the most appropriate next steps for EC, including how to train staff to facilitate inclusion, the types of day-to-day logistics that need to be considered in order to adapt, modify, and make accessible all elements of the camp day, and what types of alternative programs could be offered for campers who are unable to attend a full week at camp, for whatever reason. Looking even further ahead, she said she want to explore opportunities for campers who have aged out of the EC program to continue to be involved with MBC.
Reflecting on her Fellowship experience, Livingston said she was grateful to be constantly reminded of the incredible work that service-minded health care professionals do on a regular basis, and the amazing results their work brings about.
“Having the opportunity to be a part of such an incredible Fellowship cohort has inspired me each and every time we met,” she said. “The conversations we have, the perspectives each Fellow brings, and the dedication to service is truly incredible. I hope to never lose sight of that going forward.”
With its emphasis on service, the Fellowship was a meaningful antidote to the all-too-frequent messages students in professional programs hear about the importance of career advancement and knowing the “right” people, Livingston said.
“This Fellowship provides the opportunity to become connected to an incredible network of servant leaders,” she said, “and to remind oneself about the importance of serving the community you’re in and being connected to the people around you.”