A number of changes have taken place this summer, during these unprecedented times, including a reduction in opportunities for children to attend day and residential camps. Summer camps often provide months of fun-filled activities for kids and time away from the stress of school. For children with chronic health conditions, condition specific residential camps promote independence within a community of peers and mentors who share the same condition and provide much needed respite for families.
We spoke to Sandra Cushner-Weinstein who runs Brainy Camps, about how her incredible interdisciplinary team of four individuals has had to be resilient and quickly turn the popular, well-attended residential camps for children with chronic health conditions into their first virtual camp this summer. Her team includes a pediatric nurse practitioner, psychologist and administrative manager.
Sandra Cushner-Weinstein (PT, LICSW, LCSW-C, Licensed Physical Therapist and Clinical Social Worker) is the founder and director of Brainy Camps as well as a Board of Director Member with the Child Neurology Foundation. Brainy Camps of Children’s National serves children and adults with chronic health conditions including epilepsy, autism, hydrocephalus, cerebral palsy and neurofibromatosis as well as sickle cell disease, type 1 diabetes and congenital heart disease.
Q&A with Brainy Camps Director Sandra Cushner-Weinstein About Taking Summer Camps Virtual
CNF: Do you think virtual summer camps will continue even after the pandemic is over and restrictions are lifted?
Sandra Cushner-Weinstein: That’s an interesting question. In the past, we discussed the possibility of designing virtual programs for kids who might otherwise not be able to attend a residential or day camp. COVID-19 provided the necessity for our staff to creatively adapt our residential camp into a virtual camp to support the children and families we serve. Based on our experience this summer and feedback from families, we are exploring the idea of offering our virtual camp programs in the hospital and conducting virtual activities and groups throughout the year in addition to our summer residential camps.
So, it seems there are some benefits to summer camps going virtual?
Absolutely. In addition to maintaining a community of support, virtual camps expand options for children who cannot attend in in-person camps and offer a comfortable way for new campers to join without the fear of leaving home. At the same time, virtual camps do not produce all the benefits residential camps offer.
What happens when you go away?
Research suggests children who participate in condition specific, residential camps demonstrate an increase in adaptive coping and resilience, in addition to a sense of belonging. Residential camps provide an opportunity for campers to gain independence and build confidence. Since parents are not around to supervise their children, campers are encouraged to make their own decisions, establish friendships and become better self-managers and self-advocates. Some of these opportunities are difficult to promote in a virtual world.
What made you start these camps?
I started these camps to reduce the social isolation I saw among children with epilepsy and other chronic health conditions. The in-person camps increase social connections and promote a strong sense of belonging and community. So, the challenge has been to do that online. From what I’ve seen from the last weeks of camps, it’s possible to maintain and expand that sense of community online. It is not easy to engage new campers in the virtual world but we did it and continued expanding the support of our camp community.
How do you do that? What does a virtual camp look like?
There are a lot of games, shared stories, projects and activities organized in breakout rooms with leaders and co-facilitators.
Today, for example, we began with family yoga — one of our nurses ran a yoga class and we invited campers and families to join.
After that, there were pre-session games like ‘Minute to Win It’, followed by different activities selected by the campers, including crochet, origami, painting and sports challenges. All the kids received items for the activities they chose, so everyone has the supplies they need to participate. An example is friendship bracelets. Campers were sent a drawn pattern, cardboard, string or ropes and a clasp to learn knots and make survival bracelets. Campers who picked mini golf were sent pieces of PVC pipe to construct their DIY golf clubs. I led journaling and painting which meant sending all the supplies needed for those activities. You should have seen my living room over the last couple months! It was covered with piles of items we had to package and ship to the campers to fill their activity requests. Included in each box were S’mores and camp tee shirts just to keep the Brainy Camps spirit alive. In total, we prepared and mailed over 250 boxes!
The morning of activities was followed by an hour break and, at 12:15, lunch brunch was held. Lunch brunch or bunk groups offered an opportunity for kids to talk each day. The psychologist and I facilitated a therapeutic support group with each bunk to help kids express their worries and share their hopes. Counselors and counselors-in-training continued these groups throughout the week.
Then there’s a break, where everyone goes outside and they do physical activities–like mini golf–followed by more fun activities and games throughout the afternoon.
At 7:00 PM each night, we conduct an evening activity. Last night it was a campfire and tonight will be a talent show. The goal is to provide a sense of the tradition and continuity we offer during the residential camps to give the campers a sense of community.
What kind of reactions have you been getting from campers and their families so far?
They’re so appreciative. Last night in the talent show, we had one child who created a story about dots who felt different and left out. The dot found a place where there were other dots like her and friends she could connect with – who understood. This was a very emotional story that expressed her feelings beautifully. She spoke about how important the camp was to her and all the friends she has made. These are the moments that remind me why I continue to do this work – even when I feel totally exhausted!
What advice would you give a child and their family who is attending a virtual camp this summer?
I would say, “Open your minds and allow yourself to be receptive to a new approach.” In reality, this is a new normal. A lot of kids were disappointed. They had been counting down the days till camp all year and we weren’t able to have in-person camps this summer. While exploring the possible activities we would offer, we included families in our planning, with the goal of maintaining the good things from the in-person camps in a virtual way. It’s certainly been a challenge and the design may not work for everyone. On the other hand, we are all resilient with the potential to adapt. As I say to the campers, “This is not the most difficult thing you have experienced in your life. Sometimes challenges arise that require us to adjust and adapt. When we do, we reinforce our flexibility and emotional strength and can benefit from the experience”.
At Brainy Camps, our mantra has always been and continues to be ‘Have fun, be wise and live well’. During these times, we now say, ‘Have fun, be wise, be safe and well’.
Quotes From Camp:
“It made his summer on many levels!!! So appreciative he had camp!!!”
“Actually, it paved the way to start school since camp ended and our school starts within 2 weeks of each other. I know that wasn’t the intention of the camp but a soft return to being social as well as the virtual aspect was great timing!”
“This was a great opportunity – kids missed so much (going out, connecting with friends) due to COVID-19, and what you guys created (active activities, a sense of community and belonging, opportunity to share with others) is priceless.”
“She loved it – and wanted to participate in everything offered. Her mood was great all week, with her being motivated to join in every activity – there were some I thought she might lose interest in (crafts are not her thing), but I think the socializing through Zoom made all the difference. It was perfect – and it made her really happy to get the box of supplies. That made it really feel special/personal. Thank you!”
“It’s all he’s talked about since attending. He can’t wait till next summer.”
“Thank you a million times for the hard work this took to do. It may have been home but I know it took just as much time and energy if not more.”
“I wish we had found you sooner! Alexander made room in his schedule for the camp, canceling or rescheduling conflicting appointments after the camp started, which tells me he liked it much more than he lets on!”
“Thank you all for your time and devotion In keeping the camp going.”
“We were super happy with how well organized everything was, as well as the enthusiasm and great leadership of the counselors (as always). It was really neat to see how well the positive energy and community spirit of the in-person camp was translated into the virtual camp. Great job everyone!”
“Thank you for hard work and making the best out of a difficult situation. Karen really enjoyed camp!! She was one happy camper all week!”
“Grateful for the time and effort on behalf of the staff to make the virtual camp exciting for the kids, nevertheless we are hoping to be back in VA (on campus) next summer! Nothing beats that experience especially being able to go in the lake, sit by a real campfire, sleeping in the dorms, etc. No nothing.”
“You all did an amazing job in the face of major adversity!”
About Brainy Camps
Brainy Camps is a consortium of residential camps for children, teenagers, and young adults with chronic health conditions. The programs provide children with chronic illnesses the opportunities to meet peers, mentors and counselors with the same conditions and discover that they are not alone in the world. Brainy Camps, a subsidiary of Children’s National is now the Brainy Camps Institute of Children’s National in Washington D.C.