Nurturing Empathy: A Journey into Exceptionality with Zoe O’Neill

Nurturing Empathy: A Journey into Exceptionality with Zoe O’Neill

by Chris Tompkins | November 2, 2023

Zoe O’Neill is coordinator of both the CEO and Exceptionality programs at Muskoka Woods. In the latter position, she works with guests who require extra care and attention in order to have a successful camp experience. For her role, Zoe draws on her professional experience working with both adults and young people with disabilities along with her passion for helping others. In the latest episode of the Shaping Our World podcast, she provides some insight into how those relationships she has nurtured at Muskoka Woods have positively impacted her own life as well.

What makes Muskoka Woods’ Exceptionalities Program exceptional?

Zoe explains that the thing that stands out to her when it comes to Muskoka Woods’ program for kids with disabilities is, first and foremost, that the kids are fully integrated with the rest of the guests — which is important in breaking down barriers. Additionally, holding up one of the core values of Muskoka Woods — to inspire leadership in kids — applies to every child at camp. In order to help them realize their leadership potential, Zoe explains that staff are trained to praise the small wins and not just the big things.

“It’s easy to get caught up in the really big things … [like] getting up on water skis for the first time,” she says. “But for some of our kids, just being able to get in the water is a really big deal for them.”

Zoe and her team are constantly underscoring those achievements because it helps the kids grow in confidence.

The concerns of parents of children with exceptionalities

Camp can be anxiety-inducing for all parents, but parents of kids who have special needs often have their own set of concerns. Zoe points out that the biggest one is probably that they want their child to be loved and accepted. Zoe says that safety concerns — both physical safety and emotional safety — are also elevated in parents. And most of all, they tend to worry about the social aspect of camp and how their child will handle it. She explains that after having a hard school day, for instance, parents know their child is coming home to a safe space but the camp experience is different.

“To go for an entire week and have minimal contact with their parents, it can be quite stressful at times,” Zoe says.

At Muskoka Woods, processes are in place to answer parents’ fears and to help the kids have a successful time away from home. Before kids come to camp, they go through a screening process to help determine which level of support they need, ranging from 1:1 support from morning to night or more casual support via check-ins throughout the week. Then as camp approaches, the team at Muskoka Woods is in contact again to inquire more specifically about the child’s likes and dislikes, for instance, so that their counsellor has an idea of how best to engage them from the first day onward.

The impact the kids in the Exceptionalities Program have had on Zoe

In speaking of what she has learned from the exceptional people she has worked with throughout her professional career, Zoe says that one of the biggest takeaways for her has been realizing the importance and freedom of just being herself.

“I think it’s easy to get caught up in wanting to please everyone or wanting to be professional or look like you have it all together,” she explains. But then she sees the joy expressed by the guests she works with every day — despite their disability. Zoe says that seeing guests live life to the fullest every day, inspires her to do the same.

For more on what Zoe has to say about her experiences working in the Exceptionalities Program at Muskoka Woods, listen to the full episode at the top of this post.

Visit our website to discover a variety of other guests that we’ve had on the show. Shaping Our World episodes are also available wherever you get podcasts.

Transcript

[00:00:12.910] – Speaker 1
Hey, everyone. This is Chris Tompkins, the host of the Shaping Our World podcast. For those of you who’ve been journeying with us through our three seasons, as we come to an end, you’ll know that the whole point of this podcast is to get some experts that understand the world of young people today and to bring them on the show and hear about what’s going on in the world of young people. The podcast is called Shaping Our World, and we know that so many things are shaping the world of our young people. This is a chance for us to spend a little while hearing about what some of those things are, and as adults who care for young people, how can we help shape the young people that we care most about? Today, I have the privilege of bringing on one of the young people that is in my world, and that’s Zoe O’Neill. From a young age, Zoe has always had a passion for helping others and sports, so she decided to make a career out of it. She is currently in her final year at the University of Waterloo studying therapeutic recreation, while also working at Muskoka Woods as the CEO and Exceptionalities Coordinator.

[00:01:22.560] – Speaker 1
Zoe came to Muskoka Woods in 2019 as the Exceptionality Section Head, and then directed the program for two summers before moving into this role. Previously, Zoe had worked as a personal support worker at Christian Horizons, a live-in assistant in a home for adults with disabilities at Larch in Edmonton, and volunteered her time at Kids Ability in Waterloo, both in the classroom for children with autism and in their exceptionality sports program. Zoe obviously has a ton of experience helping and working along adults and young people with exceptionalities, and has some experience in understanding children with autism, which is great for the program that she oversees at Muskoka Woods. And you’re going to hear a little bit about that as the show goes on. And so today, I hope you are excited to hear a little bit more about what it’s like to work with kids with disabilities and how to, as parents and adults, care and understand what that world looks like. Without further ado, let’s listen in on our conversation with Zoe O’Neill. Zoe, welcome.

[00:02:38.350] – Speaker 2
Thank you.

[00:02:39.220] – Speaker 1
Yeah, thanks for joining us. As most of our audience, people know podcast is called Shaping Our World, and we really want to understand what is shaping your world. We’re going to start by going back and ask you what shaped your world when you were growing up? When you were a teenager, child, what were the biggest influences for you?

[00:02:56.890] – Speaker 2
A lot of it revolved around my friends. I was a big athlete, so a lot of coaches and a youth group kid. All of my leaders, some of them who were Muskoka Woods staff and who are still in my life today, but yeah, I would say a lot of it was just the friendships that I had.

[00:03:13.030] – Speaker 1
You said you played all sports. What sports did you play? What were you big into?

[00:03:16.880] – Speaker 2
I played a little bit of everything. I played hockey, soccer, and basketball were my big three that I did. Then I did every sports team I could at school and did speed skiing for a little bit.

[00:03:29.740] – Speaker 1
That’s a lot. Yeah. What’s shaping your world today? Help us get to know you a little bit better. Are you still doing all those sports? What are you interested in? What takes up your personal free time?

[00:03:42.400] – Speaker 2
Yeah, I would say a lot of it is still revolved around friends. I just moved to a new city and moved in with some camp friends, and so just trying to find community here in Guelph. Then as well as sports stuff, I’ve had a few concussions, so I stopped a lot of the team sports, but I am at the Guelph Grotto a lot, rock climbing. That’s my new outlet of athleticism.

[00:04:05.680] – Speaker 1
Yeah, that’s great. Zoe works with us at Muskoka Woods, and Zoe and I are in the same staff team at Muskoka Woods. That’s one of the reasons why we’re having her on the show because she’s got some incredible insights. Zoe and I know each other a little bit better than some of the guests that we have on. I may even interject and say, Tell us this and tell us that. Zoe mentioned Muskoka Woods and the connection to her. When did you start first getting associated with Muskoka Woods? Before we get into what you’re doing today.

[00:04:35.420] – Speaker 2
Yeah. My family used to actually go up during New Year’s Eve. Since I was a kid, my mom went to high school with some of the big names of Muskoka Woods, of the Chans and Pennycads and Huffs and all of them. We used to go as kids growing up just around Christmas time. My dad used to work there, but I actually’ve camp-talked a lot. I started out on Terra Pioneer Camp and then moved to Minioe and did a lot of my formative years there and counseled and did their leaders and training program and was on staff and leadership there. Then in 2019, I came to Muskoka Woods on staff for the first time. I am in therapeutic recreation, so working with individuals with disabilities, and Mino does not have a program there for it. It got to the point where my parents said, If you want to stay at camp, you got to find something a little more in your field. So I ended up at Muskoka Woods.

[00:05:37.250] – Speaker 1
Well, thank goodness for Muskoka Woods. We had something in your field, so that’s great. You talked about your field, what you’re doing. Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing specifically now that’s shaping the world of teens and young people. What you do at Muskoka Woods and maybe even outside of that as well.

[00:05:54.330] – Speaker 2
Yeah. My job is split into two parts. The first one is the CEO program, which is the leadership program for 15-17-year-olds at the Skooka Woods. Throughout the year, one of the best parts of my job is the follow-up event, so I get to keep in touch with all of the teens who just graduated from the program and run fun events for them every month. We just went to Canada’s Wonderland, and this month, we’re going to Sky Zone. That has been a lot of fun. Then the other half of my job is exceptionalities, which is a bit more of my background, and I get to work with all of the individuals who come up to camp with disabilities. Right now, I’m just trying to get plugged into a church and get involved, but I’m still looking because I came to Gwelf just a month ago.

[00:06:48.120] – Speaker 1
What made you want to get into this field? What was it about working with kids with disabilities? In our world, we call it our exceptionalities program. What drew you into doing this work?

[00:07:00.850] – Speaker 2
I think growing up, I always had a heart for those on the outside, and I didn’t really know what it looked like within a career setting. I have always been super active. I hated the idea of just being behind a desk, and I have always loved to help people. For a long time, I thought I wanted to be more in the physiotherapy side of things, kinesiology, even a massage therapist for a little while. But I learned very quickly in high school that I did not like science. Those fields took a back seat. For a little bit, I also wanted to be a teacher. Come, but I still wanted more of an athletic or active side of things. One of my friends from church, actually, who’s a few years older than me, did the recreation therapy program at Baroque. That’s what introduced this field to me. I was one of the very late people in high school where everyone always knew what they wanted to do, and I didn’t fully know. I applied to university the last day I had to and still deferred. But I think just always having a passion for helping others and seeing people on the outside.

[00:08:19.830] – Speaker 2
I think a lot of people in our field often have one moment or one individual that they’ve worked with that made them realize that this is what they want to do. I don’t think I had that aha moment. It was just something that I always grew up around.

[00:08:35.710] – Speaker 1
Through your program and through your work, you get to lead and work alongside kids with all different sorts of challenges or disabilities. One of the things I think we’ve always realized is whenever you work alongside kids like this, yes, we can give and help and contribute, but man, we get so much back in return. What we learned from young people that have different things that they’re navigating in life and their personalities and who they are and how they’ve navigated life. Man, it’s so enriching for me. Anytime I’ve been around the kids that we work with at Muskoka Woods. What have you learned and gained from the experience that you have of working with young people in our exceptionalities program or in different spheres of your life?

[00:09:26.370] – Speaker 2
Yeah, I think I’ve learned a lot of things. I think something that always sticks out to me is just not being afraid to be myself. I think it’s easy to get caught up in wanting to please everyone or wanting to be professional or look like you have it all together and just being able to break down those walls and barriers when working with these individuals and just seeing the joy that they have in everyday. A lot of it is just individuals looking at them and seeing like, Oh, how can they be so happy all the time with the disability that they may have? And just seeing that they are able to live life to the fullest and what that can look like for me as well.

[00:10:11.840] – Speaker 1
Yeah, that’s so true. That’s similar to what I’ve picked up and experienced along the way. When we talk about programs, and particularly at CAMPS, there are a lot of great programs for young people that are out there. Muskoka Woods is not any better or worse. It’s just different. Can you maybe explain to us just the uniqueness of the program that you’re a part of and leading it? Just help us understand. When we’re talking about bringing kids with exceptionality to camp and what success looks like for kids in programs and all that stuff, just give us a context of what the program is like at Muskoka Woods.

[00:10:51.470] – Speaker 2
Yeah, there’s a lot of unique things within the exceptionality program at Muskoka Woods. One of them, just cost-related. We don’t charge extra for the guests with exceptionalities to come to camp. I think that there are a lot of different camp programs for individuals with disabilities that focus solely on them. There’s a lot of great organizations out there. But something that’s unique with Muskoka Woods as well is just the integration of them within the cabin. We don’t create different cabins just for kids with exceptionalities, but we have them involved in a cabin just like any other guest at camp.

[00:11:28.760] – Speaker 1
Yeah, that’s amazing. Now we’re going to dive into your perspective on the programs that the Skokwoods offers or other places, and how do we help parents and kids find them, be involved in them, and find success in them. In your experience, when we’re thinking about sending kids away, every parent is nervous about what it’s going to be like when our kids are outside of our care, and particularly with an overnight camp. I’m sure as you’ve navigated the uniqueness of whatever your child’s experience is, it can be a big deal. But from your experience, what are some of the concerns that parents or caregivers have when sending their children with exceptionalities to camp?

[00:12:14.760] – Speaker 2
Yeah, I think every parent wants their child to be loved and accepted for who they are, whether or not they have an exceptionality. But when they do, some of these feelings are intensified. I think safety is a big concern when sending their children with exceptionalities to camp. Just whether that be physical, mental, emotional safety, everything, again, is just elevated. I think one of the other bigger concerns is just social aspect of everything. School can be a really difficult place for a lot of children, especially those with exceptionalities, and just… Especially if they’ve come off a really hard school year and just going away, a lot of them, it’s their first time away from home. To go for an entire week and have minimal contact with their parents, it can be quite stressful at times. Just a lot of the concern revolves around the social aspect of camp, I think. I think it can be really difficult for parents when at school they may have a hard day, but then they can come home to safe space. We always want camp to be safe, but it’s a week away from their parents and their comfort zone.

[00:13:28.380] – Speaker 2
For them to be able to step out into that is difficult and it’s challenging.

[00:13:34.410] – Speaker 1
Yeah. What about kids themselves? What are some of their concerns and what are they thinking about when it comes to being welcomed into a camp experience for a week or three days or whatever the program looks like?

[00:13:48.890] – Speaker 2
Yeah, I think kids, again, have those similar thoughts. It’s easy to get in their own heads, again, if they’ve had a really hard year at school with certain individuals. To come to a new place where they don’t know people and where in the previous they might not have been fully accepted for who they are, just to learn to be themselves and grow in their confidence can be a big barrier for a lot of the kids.

[00:14:17.810] – Speaker 1
What do you do with families, parents, and kids before camp even starts to help prepare families? Because a lot of these things, I think, expectations is sometimes our biggest fear, right? Mm-hmm. That we just want we don’t know. What do you and the team do to help address some of these concerns before the experience even happens and get to know kids and what their unique concerns are?

[00:14:44.260] – Speaker 2
Yeah. We call every parent. There’s two processes. There’s a screening process, which one of our other staff members, Aaron, does, and she talks through what a typical week at camp may look like, and talking to the parents and helping them decide what level of support that their child might need while at camp. We have three different levels, ranging from 1:1 support from morning to bed to just check things throughout the week and just deciding where their needs are and what we can do to support them. Then we have the team running on the ground throughout the summer. Aaron does a lot of the pre-summer registration, and then the ground summer, we have our exceptionality director and section head call the parents all before their child comes up to camp and just goes through some of the basic needs that their child might have and just trying to get to know them more simple things like asking what are some of their interests so that our counselors have something to talk to them about that they love, whether that be Marvel or a specific sport or any extracurriculars that they participate in throughout the year, things like that.

[00:16:02.900] – Speaker 2
Then areas that they might need a bit more support in, some areas of concern or some areas where they think that they will already thrive well at camp and just try to gauge the level of need that their child has.

[00:16:17.740] – Speaker 1
I think one of the things that is really important to think through, and for parents, as we’re considering camp or other programs, is being able to have these conversations before camp actually happens. We at Muskoka Woods try to develop a very unique plan for success based on what we know about the family and the kids and through conversations, but we also know what camp is like ourselves, and some things that we can navigate around and what things are just there. I think being realistic for us to be successful in our unique context is unique, and not every kid will have a great time being at Muskoka Woods. There may be better camps that are more suited for the individual needs that a kid has. I think for us and for parents, I would say too, in any program like this, wherever your kids are, is to have these thoughtful conversations before and with the staff and the team and being open to being realistic about what the camp experience is like and being flexible and open to try to cater some unique things based on the individual children that are coming. I think partnering together in that I think is really important, and that’s where we found a lot of success, right?

[00:17:33.740] – Speaker 1
Being able to have that plan, and then once the camp happens to just deliver on what it is, we’ve put together… Obviously, you can’t put together every situation and scenario, but you can have a high-level commonality on what success looks like in that camp experience. Sometimes parents, we just need to ask and we need to find the right people and make some insights into what makes the camp experience or any program experience successful for kids. What do you think are the biggest barriers faced by kids with exceptionalities in a camp setting? If their parents who are thinking about their kid is on the autism spectrum or whatever the specific exceptionality is, and parents are thinking about camp, what are some of the biggest barriers that often happen within the camp setting? Then we’re going to talk about how we can overcome them, but what do you think are the biggest barriers?

[00:18:27.180] – Speaker 2
I think that there can be a lack of understanding what their needs are. Even though we do the intake calls beforehand, we’re only with their child for a week, sometimes two weeks. We don’t have the same level of interaction that they get with someone, whether that be an EA or peers at school who are with them eight months of the year. To try and get to know their child quickly and understand their needs, it can be difficult at times. I was a PSW for a long time, and I was with a boy for two years every day. Learning his needs, it got to the point where I knew what he needed before he needed to communicate that with me. Just spending many hours with them, you just learn the ins and outs. It’s the same with parents and their other children. It’s just the more time you spend with someone, the more you get to know them, and the more you can see their needs. I think also a lot of people in our field or just I think in general, individuals, we have a tendency to want to be fixers, and it can be difficult to watch kids with exceptionalities face these barriers at camp and not automatically jump in.

[00:19:44.480] – Speaker 2
Something that we always teach our counselors and our staff is that it’s important to remember that they are capable of doing many things. Even if it looks a little different than what we envisioned it, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t able to do something. This can be applied to many aspects of camp, whether that be physically at certain activities, giving them a chance before jumping in, or socially within the cabin and creating meaningful relationships. Camp is an opportunity for them to be loved and accepted for who they are and step into confidence and overcome those barriers. It’s our job as staff to allow them to do that and not just jump in and try and fix everything for them right away.

[00:20:32.020] – Speaker 1
I think obviously another barrier is just literally not being with our children all the time too. Just that overnight nature. Sometimes it’s probably, and we’ll talk about how we break down some of these barriers, but sometimes just having that first experience away from home being a week at camp can be a lot, right? And so there’s that barrier of the overnight, just as another thing too, that can be challenging, because our kids might be able to do really well at school or in different contexts, but camp is a very different context when it’s 24 hours a day overnight, a lot of activity, a lot of socialization, as you mentioned, fully integrated, and so understanding the light, sound, physical, intellectual, all that stuff and the experience is important to understand. I think sometimes we think things are barriers that might not be. So you’ve been involved for a long time in the program at Muskoka Woods. And can you talk a little bit about how you and the team there break down some of these barriers, whether they’re physical, intellectual, social, behavior, so that every guest gets as much out of their week at camp as possible?

[00:21:44.430] – Speaker 2
Yeah. So we train our staff to encourage and support the guests to participate in all aspects of camp, even if it is scary at first. Our ultimate goal is that our guests actually don’t really need us. Of course, there are exceptions with some higher needs guests who will always need a level of care and support that we are more than happy to provide. But some of the other guests, we have seen them grow and learn so much at camp, whether that be in the one week or over the years. We’ve had guests who started off with constant one-to-one support and slowly over the years as they became more comfortable in a camp setting and getting used to that stimulation. Camp is a very overstimulating place. We’ve seen them grow in their skills and abilities and gain confidence. We’ve been able to taper off the support to a point where they have come and not been a part of our program anymore. Some of them even joining staff and thriving in the Ms. Cuckowitz community. It can be really difficult to break down barriers within a week’s time. But I think just the reassurance that our staff can bring that you can do this.

[00:22:55.400] – Speaker 2
We have faith in you. We want to see you grow and just that encouragement that they might not always get and the individuality that they have is something so special. Just trying, again, to just reassure them and who they are and that even though camp is scary and there are barriers that were there to support them when they need it and that they can also do things on their own.

[00:23:22.010] – Speaker 1
How do you and your team throughout the week navigate the experience? Because I know you’re encouraging kids to step out of their comfort zone and try things, but not everything goes super successfully. And so for you, how do you continue to work with parents as the week goes on with not too much involvement, but just enough? How do you navigate that? So if parents send their kids away for a week, they’re not just like going, Oh, my goodness, how is this going? And how do you get feedback back? And how do you involve parents in problem-solving as the week goes on? Yeah.

[00:23:58.180] – Speaker 2
We like to say no news is good news. For them to hopefully not worry as much, we’re very open to having conversations throughout the week. Ideally, the parent isn’t overly involved where they’re checking in every single hour of the day and they just let their child enjoy camp and enjoy just being a kid. But we do emails or calls throughout the week at times. Sometimes if we know that there’s an activity that the child might be a little more nervous about, we’ll make sure that we’re there supporting them and being able to give updates to the parents that way. For the end of the week, we actually do end-of-the-week emails with updates of how the week fully went, and we are able to show them photos. Sometimes it’s hard for the exceptionality guests to articulate how their week went and what they did, and so we’re able to give a debrief of, This was the theme of the week. This is some of the activities they did. You could ask them questions about this, or this was their favorite activity, or their favorite evening program, and showing them photos and asking for feedback from a survey from the parents in that way as well.

[00:25:19.690] – Speaker 1
Yeah, that’s great. One of the values at Ms. Goko Woods, one of our core values is around leadership, helping to inspire leadership in kids. Our overall vision at Muscoe Woods is to inspire youth to shape their world. How do you and your team work to keep kids with exceptionalities attending camp realize their leadership potential? Because that might be something that we don’t often think of when it comes to kids with exceptionalities, their ability to be a leader. What does that look like for the program that you lead?

[00:25:52.030] – Speaker 2
I think one of the ways we do this is just allowing them to advocate for themselves and use their own voice. School can be a tough place for a lot of these guests. It’s easy to fall behind and get discouraged, but at camp, we want all the kids to realize their potential. Just encouraging them in the small victories is something that we really try and drill into our staff. Encourage the small wins and praise the small things and not just the big things. It’s easy to get caught up in the really big things of something like water skiing, of getting up on water skis for the first time. That is amazing, and it’s easy to focus on that. But for some of our kids, just being able to get in the water is a really big deal for them. So to just constantly encourage that side of things as well just helps them realize their leadership potential a little bit more because they realize that they can do all these things and grow in confidence. And when they are growing in confidence, then they step up more.

[00:26:58.800] – Speaker 1
Yeah, and we’ve seen that so many times at camp. One of the beauties of the camp experience, and I think you might get this in school and other programs, but one of the things that camp is really great at is giving all kids an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and to thrive. One of the great things about the integrated program at Muskoka Woods is guests with exceptionalities are learning and growing and developing alongside of other kids in their cabin. And you’ve seen so many times where kids are cheering each other on and the spotlight can turn to a guest with exceptionalities and to hear all the other kids cheering and supporting. And like you and I said at the beginning, there’s lots that we learn from kids with exceptionalities. If we just slow down and pay attention enough, and I think the camp environment actually is a really unique way for young kids that do not have disabilities to be around kids that do and to learn from them as well. And that is a leadership opportunity. It’s a way for a kid to have influence over other kids and help them learn and grow in a different way than maybe they were planning on if their cabin or their group hadn’t had a kid with exceptionalities in it.

[00:28:19.610] – Speaker 1
And so I think that’s another way that you and your team encouraged kids to not just step out in their cabin, but even around camp, performing a big performance at impact or just different opportunities like that. I think that that’s another way that comes forward in the uniqueness of the camp setting. There are a lot of benefits of summer camp for all kids. Increased self-confidence, independence, the development of social skills, just health benefits from being outside and being active. Parents often talk about kids coming home changed, like something’s been different. We hear testimonies from different kids who have overcome fears on the ropes course, for instance. Are there some examples of stories that really stand out for you of the impact that camp has had on some of the guests that you’ve served that you’ve been able to see and be a part of over the years?

[00:29:18.240] – Speaker 2
Yeah. I feel like there are so many. I feel like every exceptionality guest has their own story of change and confidence. But one that stands out to me was in my first summer, there was a boy who did not want to be at camp at all. He was kicking and screaming. We spent the entire arrival time trying to coax him out of his car while he was yelling at us and screaming that he doesn’t want to be here. Eventually, we got him out, and he agreed to come to the inspiration garden with us at camp, which is just a really great spot. It’s in the center of camp, but it also allows them to be destimulated a little bit. It’s a safe space for them. There’s different huts with different benefits and all that. The first night was pretty rough. He was insisting that he was going to go home and he didn’t want to participate in anything, didn’t want to talk to any of the other boys in his cabins, and this continued for the first couple of days. But by day three, we learned that he loved basketball, and so he slowly started to participate in that, which led him to try other activities and evening programs and start talking to the cabinmates and building relationships that I don’t think that he thought was possible for him.

[00:30:40.790] – Speaker 2
By the end of the week, he was crying because he didn’t want to leave. And so that change in just a few days with him and just seeing him grow and his confidence and social skills, it was really cool.

[00:30:54.770] – Speaker 1
Often, we don’t know what our kids are capable of until they’re in situations that might be a bit difficult and stretching, and then they rise to it. I know there have been anecdotally so many stories from parents who are like, Man, the independence and confidence that I’ve seen from my child coming out of camp that I just didn’t even think was possible. Even some of the relationships, I think, that are formed through the program and through camp in general are really significant. You’ve spent the last bit of your schooling and education in your early career working with kids and adults with exceptionalities. What is a bias or a misconception about people with special needs that you would love to address? What’s something that you just wish the general population would know that maybe they don’t really know?

[00:31:48.770] – Speaker 2
Yeah, I think I touched on this a little bit earlier, but just the misconception that individuals with exceptionalities are unable to do something, again, they are so capable of so many things, and just because they might not do it in a way we want them to doesn’t mean that they can’t do something. It might look a little different. It might be a little slower, but they can do it. We just need to give them those opportunities instead of trying to jump in right away and take over. I think it’s the same with younger kids sometimes. It’s easy to just want to jump in and tie their shoe for them or something. But if we don’t give them those opportunities, they’re never going to learn, and they’re never going to show us all of their capabilities and skills, and they just have so much talent and skills that we often miss because we don’t give them those opportunities to show us.

[00:32:43.380] – Speaker 1
I think one of the things I would add from my experience is I think we often think that programs like what we offer at camp is going to be good specifically for the guests with exceptionalities that are there, like we’re offering them this great opportunity, but the integrated nature of this program is actually oftentimes more beneficial from the other kids in the cabin. And what they learn and what they come away with is huge. I think for me… And so I think for me, and I don’t know if it’s a bias or misconception, but I think the more time we spend with people who maybe have some exceptionalities or challenges, I think we just learn and grow ourselves so often about resilience, about perspective, about what’s really important in life, how to have good attitude. There’s so many things the list could go on and on that I know from my experience, the closer I’ve gotten to the kids that we serve, sometimes we think that doing programs like this is really for the kids themselves, but I actually think it’s for all of us, and it makes us all better people at the end of the day.

[00:33:53.690] – Speaker 2
Yeah, definitely.

[00:33:55.720] – Speaker 1
Just as we’re wrapping up the conversation, Zoe, it’s been great to get a lot of insight into what this program is like and some insights for parents with kids with exceptionalities or just parents in general. We’re looking at camps and programs that help kids grow and develop. What are some final thoughts or words of encouragement you would have for any parents that are listening right now with their children with exceptionalities who are thinking about camp but might be worried about inclusion or getting the right care or support when it comes to summer camp or any other programs? What are some final thoughts or encouragements you would have for those parents?

[00:34:33.860] – Speaker 2
Yeah. I’m not a parent, but I know that it is scary to send them away to a summer camp overnight for a week, especially if they have exceptionalities. I think that there have been so many life-changing testimonials of children who have come through our front gates. I encourage parents to take that leap of faith. We have amazing staff, a lot of programs in general who serve this population. The staff want to be there and they want to care and support for your child. So just take that leap of faith. Camp is a place for all kids to grow and confidence and build meaningful relationships and to have those life-changing experiences. It just starts with parents entrusting us.

[00:35:17.860] – Speaker 1
Yeah, that’s great. One of the things that stood out to me, Zoe, that you were talking about is helping kids step into things that they might not be comfortable doing and that they might not think they can do. And so much of that is because they just haven’t had the opportunity to try it. And what you do really well with your team in the program is, like you mentioned, helping kids do that. And I wonder if, as parents, we could learn something from that. I think so often, whether our kids have exceptionalities or not, we are so worried about whether our kids will be doing well that whenever they come up against something that they haven’t tried before or might feel difficult or is maybe a bit overwhelming, that our natural tendency is to say, Well, you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to try that. Let’s take you out of that potentially stressful situation so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. I just wonder what our kids are missing out from not really encouraging them to step into things that are hard, that are not what we’re normally used to doing, that things that are maybe beyond our experience or ability at that time, and to just say, No, you can do it.

[00:36:45.160] – Speaker 1
I know this feels tough. I know this isn’t what you thought it would look like, but why don’t you try it? Why don’t you just get in the water and see what it’s like to put on the water skis? Why don’t you try to get up? And I think that’s a great, for me, a reminder from this program. What has worked so well is taking kids that haven’t had any of these experiences, putting them in an environment that can feel overwhelming and uncomfortable and not what they’re used to, and giving them the opportunity to try things, to safely try things that they wouldn’t normally get to do in their home environment. And for a lot of the kids in the program you run, that’s even just being in a cabin overnight with other kids. And man, what we get to see as growth and development and life that comes from that is a great reminder for all of us as parents to say, Where are we encouraging our kids to step out of their comfort zone and to try things that maybe they don’t feel like they can do or is a bit beyond their grasp?

[00:37:48.480] – Speaker 1
But if they tried it, man, not only would they get a different skill or meet new people or discover something that they love that they didn’t know, but just for their own self-confidence of accomplishing something that feels a little more difficult, overcoming a fear. And for parents, maybe that’s our own fear as well. But giving them that opportunity to really take a step forward in confidence by doing something that they wouldn’t get the opportunity to do, and wow, what can that do for growth and development and just who we are as human beings? I think that’s a beauty of the program that you run, and I think that’s a beauty of camp. I think it’s a beauty of giving kids opportunities to do a lot of unique and different and sometimes difficult things. I think the fruit of that on the other side is massive. Thanks for being with us today, Zoe. Any other final thoughts you have about parents and kids? How can people find more about Muskoka Woods or other camp opportunities or programs? Again, if you’re a parent and you’re like, What is recreational therapy? How do I get involved in that?

[00:38:54.260] – Speaker 1
What are some places and things that people can go to to find more out about opportunities like summer camp?

[00:39:01.820] – Speaker 2
Yeah, I think recreation therapy is a growing field. It’s pretty new, so there’s a lot of new things and programs starting to evolve and come out a lot of locally in your community. I think rec therapy is like people don’t fully know what it is, but essentially it’s just how we use recreation and leisure and activity and socialization as a form of therapy and what that looks like. So whether that be doing cooking classes or sports programs, art programs, anything like that, just getting your children involved in all different kinds of things is just so beneficial for them.

[00:39:44.160] – Speaker 1
That’s great. Thank you, Zoe, for your time today. That was really insightful and helpful. Appreciate having you with us today.

[00:39:51.110] – Speaker 2
Thank you.

About the Author

Chris Tompkins is the CEO of Muskoka Woods. He holds a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Guelph, a teacher’s college degree from the University of Toronto and a Master’s degree in Youth Development from Clemson University. His experience leading in local community, school, church and camp settings has spanned over 20 years. His current role and expertise generates a demand for him to speak with teens and consult with youth leaders. Chris hosts the Muskoka Woods podcast, Shaping Our World where he speaks with youth development experts. He is an avid sports fan who enjoys an afternoon with a big cup of coffee and a good book. Chris resides in Stouffville, Ontario with his wife and daughter.
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