While 2020 brought about many cancellations and losses, the year also provided Easter Seals Ontario an opportunity to evaluate its existing camp programs and expand its existing recreational programming to meet the ever-changing needs of our families. Over the past several months, Easter Seals families have received and responded to an Easter Seals Ontario survey, designed to provide valuable insight into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on families, as well the value and need for camp and recreational programming.
From the survey responses received to date, families identified the top two areas of impact due to COVID-19 as it pertained to their children with special needs as a loss of socialization and a loss of recreational programming, respectively.
Other areas of concern for families included the loss of respite care, the loss of support services, and an increased need for mobility equipment funding. When asked if they had any increased concerns about their children’s mental or physical well-being, 78.6% of families responded “yes.” Many families also provided further comments, indicating that their children were experiencing new or increased anxiety, depression, aggression, or negative behaviours, while also losing much of their physical fitness from a lack of access to therapy and sports activities.
In a typical year, Easter Seals provides an often life-changing opportunity for children and youth with physical disabilities to attend a fully accessible overnight summer camp. The camp experience provides campers an opportunity to try new activities, build new friendships and learn new skills. Unfortunately, the closure of overnight camps in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic was a huge disappointment for hundreds of Easter Seals campers. Having already spent several months with limited opportunities for socialization and recreation, campers and families were in desperate need of camp to fill these voids. Although Easter Seals Ontario could not offer its traditional overnight camps, the organization did everything it could to serve its clients and families.
While many camps across Canada went dark for the summer 2020 season, Easter Seals Ontario displayed creativity, adaptability, and resiliency in their approach to summer programming. Genuinely showcasing the values that lie at the heart of summer camp – to connect with new friends, engage in new activities, and learn new skills – Camp E-aster Seals, a new virtual camp platform, connected hundreds of Easter Seals campers to camp in a time when families were desperate for connection and stimulation.
For seven weeks, campers, like 14-year-old Robert, met new people and shared new camp experiences in the virtual world of Camp E-aster Seals. When asked to name a highlight, Robert paused and took a long time to think. His mom stepped in to help him out – “To name one highlight is hard. There wasn’t an aspect [of virtual camp] that he didn’t enjoy.” She explained that watching the morning Flagpole video and singing along to O Canada became part of his morning routine. Throughout the day, he participated in camp programs and even got his younger sister involved. Together they did crafts and other camp activities. Robert was an eager participant in all live events, specifically weekly karate sessions, banquets and campfires.
For parents who had been trying to entertain and engage their kids for several months already, Camp E-aster Seals provided a nice reprieve. “It was so organized, so well laid out for me. I didn’t have to think. As parents, we appreciated it,” Robert’s mom added.
For camper Sam, the pandemic threw a wrench in his plans to attend overnight camp. However, even better than a ten-day overnight camp, Sam got to spend seven whole weeks connecting with camp and engaging with hundreds of his peers online through Camp E-aster Seals. And when the summer ended, camp continued!
Whether through monthly virtual campfires, bi-weekly karate, or the winter and spring break camps, campers like Sam and Robert have been able to participate in camp programming year-round from home. Each camp day featured one or two live events, such as boccia, yoga, trivia, dog therapy, and farm animal tours, in which campers could get physically active, engage it recreational activities, and connect with their peers.
Sam’s mom described the impact of Camp E-aster Seals in a time of great need: “COVID-19 forced a dramatic and often negative impact on Sam’s life. How was I going to make sure Sam could still have fun, be a teenager and engage with others? The answer to my fears was Easter Seals. Easter Seals was a lifeline. Virtual Camp is a place where Sam can engage, laugh, learn, and create. Virtual Camp is a fun, inclusive, and safe space for Sam to simply be himself, where he is valued for his unique contributions. Virtual Camp has turned loneliness into companionship and devastation over the loss of in-person camp into excitement, and all of this achieved while staying safe at home.”
While virtual programming has been the best alternative to in-person programming for many campers, we also recognized that not all Easter Seals clients can successfully participate in an online format, and as a result, Camp E-aster Seals pivoted to deliver a simultaneous offline program during the spring break session. This program saw the direct delivery of program materials and resources to participating families, to encourage offline engagement.
With the ongoing risks and uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, and the continued positive response to remote programming, Easter Seals Ontario remains committed to delivering another summer of remote camp, both virtually and offline, for all clients who wish to participate. Beginning in July, weekly sessions will kick-off with a virtual campfire on YouTube, followed by a week of daily videos and program activities, complete with special guests and live events, and capped off by an end-of-session banquet celebration. There is no minimum commitment required to participate, and all registered campers are encouraged to participate as much or as little as they would like.
Registration for Summer 2021 remote programming will open in June. Stay tuned for updates as registration nears! If families have any questions about the program, please contact Kate by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at 613-267-1244.
Want to experience the joy and excitement of Camp E-aster Seals? Check out our music video compilation featuring submissions from Spring Break campers!