Camp Provides Opportunity to Find New P.A.L.S.

P.A.L.S. holds an annual weeklong summer event at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, complete with all the summer camp trappings: swimming, arts and crafts, music, etc.

Camp was in full swing this summer as always, but for some, camp isn’t really an option.
And four years ago, Donna Forman noticed a need for a particular part of the community that wasn’t being met.
“My youngest daughter, Sydney, who is going to be 20 next week, is essentially nonverbal and uses a communication device,” said Forman, who is from Cherry Hill. “Within our community there was a real need to have a camp program and more programming for Sydney and her peers.”
Thus, Peers Using AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) for Language and Socialization — or P.A.L.S. — was created.
P.A.L.S. holds an annual weeklong summer event at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, complete with all the summer camp trappings: swimming, arts and crafts, music, etc. Their fourth summer event took place Aug. 15 to 19.
“I wanted to give her those opportunities, but there was not anything structured like that in our community,” Forman said, “so I went to the Katz JCC that has amazing programming for special needs children and gave them my idea and they were extremely supportive.”
“For the past four years, the JCC has hosted this program,” said Eileen Elias, director of the ACHaD special needs program at the JCC, “and provided a wonderful opportunity for the South Jersey community. Many of the families that have participated have also continued to be involved with JCC programming throughout the year.”
The smiles on the participants’ faces is “unmeasurable,” Elias added.
Forman, who is a certified speech pathologist, worked with another parent on setting up the program, finding the “kids” to participate — usually they are between 13 to 21 years old — and finding volunteers.
Each participant has a volunteer who works with him or her one-on-one all week. These volunteers are speech pathologists, AAC consultants, parents, teachers, graduate students and college students who work with the campers to use their communication devices comfortably and give them a fun experience.
Each year revolves around a theme upon which all of the activities are based, like superheroes or a carnival. This year, everyone’s favorite mouse came out on top and the week was centered around Disney, which Forman said with a laugh “will be hard to top next year.”
There are stimulating language activities that tie into it, she added, but it’s really for entertainment.
“It’s somewhat structured, but not really,” Forman said. “To them, it’s just fun. On the first day, we had the one speech therapist who was dressed up as Minnie Mouse and she did activities as Minnie, had the children participating in games and activities around Minnie and Disney characters — everybody loves that.”
There were different fun activities throughout the day, which lasted from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m., and augmentative communication specialists worked with the participants to use their communication devices and learn new vocabulary and language.
That way, they could all socialize and interact with each other using their devices and become more proficient.
There is also a theatrical element to the week every year. The Walnut Street Theatre works with P.A.L.S. participants to come up with a skit or a play based on that summer’s theme.
“They created a Disney-themed play for our students to all be a part of,” Forman said, adding it was part of the “final Friday showcase.” “By the end of the week, it’s amazing to see how much they’ve gotten accomplished and how much they enjoy it.”
At the end of the day, the participants also enjoy some other kind of activity, from yoga to freeze dance to a Disney-themed piñata.
And while it provides parents a week to relax knowing their kids are being taken care of in a way that meets their needs, it’s also a chance for the participants to form friendships and express themselves.
“It gives our children a group of friends and peers they can have for a lifetime where they can feel happy. It’s something I know they all look forward to,” she said. “I really hope — and I truly think this has happened each year — it helps our community to realize that even though this specific group can’t communicate in the traditional way verbally, they all have the ability to express themselves through technology in different ways and people learn to accept them and understand they’re no different from anybody else. They just have different means of communication, and every year that’s the feedback we get.”
She hopes this program opens the community’s eyes to a population that might be “misunderstood” because they can’t respond the way people might expect.
For instance, if a child doesn’t answer a question, someone might think it’s rude, even though it’s because he or she can’t respond in the traditional way, Forman said.
The campers get together throughout the year, as well, for events and fundraisers — local fundraisers are how the program remains up and running, as everyone involved is a volunteer — so that they don’t have to wait all year to see each other again.
“It’s a labor of love for all of us because we believe in it so strongly,” she said. “They have their whole world on their communication devices and that’s what we’re trying to get across for people to understand. They have a great sense of humor; they just convey it in a different way.”
For Forman, she is happy Sydney has found a group of friends she can relate to and feel comfortable with.
“From the perspective of a mother,” she said, “it’s amazing to me to see her have a group of friends where they’re all just happy and laughing and enjoying each other and having a group to call her own. I would say every parent involved would certainly say that.”
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