Every summer the PSU Continuing Education department offers a two-week capstone course that takes place at Camp Kiwanis on Mt. Hood. Students take on the role of counselor to work one-on-one with children and adults who have disabilities.
Amy Rosato, Camp Kiwanis graduate assistant and graduate student in early intervention/special education, was a counselor for two years and a staff member for three years. She explained that each counselor works individually with two different campers, one for each week.
Counselors spend their first day and a half at camp learning how to work with the campers, how to work as a team, and all about the camp itself.
After meeting their campers, workers spend the rest of the week horseback riding, swimming, fishing, art-making, adventuring and canoeing. The counselor then gets a weekend off before returning to camp and meeting another camper for the second week.
Rosato said of the campers, “This is like their vacation. Parents usually say they come home and pack for next year.”
She is quick to add counselor’s benefit also from the experience. “This is the most rewarding experience anyone could have,” Rosato said. “I think everyone needs to spend at least one week out of their whole entire life being responsible for a kid with special needs.”
Laura Wilkinson, a senior social science major, was a counselor for two weeks last August and said, “It was an experience of a lifetime.”
She said while the focus is on the campers and making sure they have the best possible time, she also learned a lot about herself and how to deal with students and people with special needs.
Her first week she worked with Tim, a 26-year-old man with Down’s syndrome. Her second week was spent with Jeanette, a 19-year-old autistic woman.
The most challenging aspect for Wilkinson was assisting campers in going to the restroom.
However, she said the counseling supervisors worked with her and she overcame her apprehension.
Wilkinson said she maintained contact with her campers by mail after the two weeks were over. She also cultivated relationships with other counselors from PSU. She said of her experience, “I have friendships that I’ll hopefully have for the rest of my life, that I met at camp.”
Wilkinson said her experience as a counselor has inspired her to look into teaching special education. She added, “It was the best real world experience that I’ve had as far as the classroom goes.”
Rosato admits, “Working with people who have special needs is not for everyone.”
However, she believes counselors are inevitably rewarded, saying, “Whether they hated the camp of liked the camper they will say they learned a lot about themselves.”
Recalling her own counseling experiences, Rosato said she realized how thankful she was for all her blessings and how much people take for granted. She explained, “You’re showering these people, having to watch someone constantly. It’s hard to realize that the world is not perfect. Individuals out there don’t have everything that we do.”
In addition to spending time with campers, counselors also gather in groups to support each other and discuss their challenges and experiences.
The entire program lasts eight weeks, from mid-July to mid-August.