A couple of weeks ago, a group of more than 100 special children got a special treat when performer Melissa Green – hailing all the way from California – brought out her guitar and began to sing.
The children enthusiastically clapped, shook and rolled along with the song… standing and sitting, dancing and making music with their voices and bodies.
This kind of fun is just a small piece of the joy these children get to experience every day at Camp Happiness, located at the old Milford Academy on Gulf Street.
Camp Happiness began 44 years ago, in the late 1960’s. The mission was to provide children with special needs a place where they could have a genuine camp experience that might not be available to them otherwise, as well as to teach and reinforce school skills.
Camp Happiness fills a need in the community because in a regular camp situation, special needs children may not get the attention they need.
“[Here] we have a lot of positive reinforcement with behavior tickets and prizes, campers of the week. We reward them for a job well done, and that seems to work, it keeps the kids happy… They get to have a good summer, and fun that they might not get to have otherwise,” said Director Marlene Sanchez.
The camp is sponsored by the Milford Recreation Department, runs for about a month from July to August, takes children from ages 5 to 12, at a rate of about $15 a day.
To come to Camp Happiness, children must have an IEP (Individual Education Plan) from the City of Milford. At camp, their special needs --as noted in their IEPs -- will be addressed. That includes speech and language issues, autism, physical disabilities, cerebal palsy, to name a few.
“We take them all,” Sanchez said. “We’re really behind taking everybody, just so they can have a camp experience, and also have the structure of what a school setting is, and be successful there."
To this end, campers begin with a morning meeting, where they say the Pledge of Allegiance, announcements are made, the agenda of the day is laid out, and campers split up into their assigned groups.
Following the morning meeting, the camp may bring the children to the gym for a performance. Performers vary from this year’s pirate visitor to singer Green. After the performance, campers go to six different periods – such as they would in a regular school day. Except, at Camp Happiness, the periods include art, music, physical education, swimming, and “splash time” to cool off on hot days.
Staff come by word of mouth from other counselors, or in many cases, their parents worked at Camp Happiness, and they, as young adults, came along to volunteer. When they became teenagers, they got jobs as counselors.
Counselors are paid staff, coming from high school and college.
“A lot of my core counselors this year have graduated from college with degrees in special education or occupational therapy, that type of thing. A lot of them came hoping to get into the field… so this is really good experience for them," Sanchez said. "Then there’re other counselors who came here just because they hear it’s fun, and then they change their majors…or they go back to school to get their degree in education.”
Camper to counselor ratio depends on the needs of the children in the group, but generally there are three to four counselors per 12 to 15 campers. If there are behavior issues, or special consideration needs to be given for physical issues, then a group will be smaller, and may have one to two counselors per child.
Once a volunteer or counselor starts working at the camp, it’s hard to leave. Sanchez herself started volunteering at Camp Happiness when she was 11, got hired when she was 17, was assistant director, and then became director – for a total of 34 years of service thus far.
A week and half ago, the end of camp was celebrated with “Family and Friends Day,” where friends and family get to come and see what their children have been doing all summer. First, they get to see a sporting event, such as campers showing off their swimming skills at McCann pool. Then, there is a barbeque, followed by performances by each group of campers, who may sing a song, or dance to a favorite piece of music. The day ends with a slide show put together by staff of pictures taken throughout the summer.
“So if [family and friends] haven’t been able to come, or they just read about something in the newsletter, [at “Family and Friends Day”], they get to see what it was all about,” said Sanchez.
“It’s just a good way to end the camp experience for the kids too.”
For anyone interested in Camp Happiness next summer, applications go home with students after they return from April vacation next year. Or a parent may contact Director Marlene Sanchez at the Milford Recreation Department, 203-783-3280.