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Laurie Levy Headshot

To the Summer Camp Director Who Excluded a Child With Special Needs

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Olivia's mother was totally honest with the person in charge of the summer art camp program. Her child has special needs and would need one-to-one support, although it did not have to be a specially-trained person. A kind middle school-aged helper would work -- someone to show her what to do if she didn't understand the directions or be with her if she needed a break.

Olivia's mother asked if she should find the helper. No problem, replied the person in charge. The art program would find someone. While Olivia loves art, ceramics was new to her.

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Olivia's self portrait, created after she was booted from art camp

At the end of the first day, Olivia was waiting with her helper on the grass outside of the building. They were drawing with markers together. Was there a problem? her mother asked? Not really, the helper responded. Olivia made a mug, but then did not want to do any more ceramics, so they decided to draw together instead. Her mother asked if it would it be OK to continue in this way for the rest of the week, and the helper said it was no problem.

Then came the painful call every parent of a child with special needs dreads. Please don't bring Olivia back tomorrow, the person in charge stated. We need the helper to manage the behavior of other children in the class as well. Olivia just doesn't fit in because she needs too much of the helper's time.

So, this is to that person in charge, and many other persons in charge like him, who dismiss children from summer programs rather than working with their families to include them:

  • When a parent tells you about her child's special needs, listen and believe her. Be honest and work with her. If you accept the child, you need to try to make it work.
  • That child who couldn't come back for the rest of the week desperately needed structure, and you pulled the rug out from under her and her family. She spent the rest of that rainy week out of sorts and dragging alongside her siblings as they made their way to their activities.
  • Olivia, the child who couldn't come back for the rest of the week, has feelings. Even though her mother told her camp was over, she knew the score. So she wondered what she had done to merit being asked to leave. Signing up for an art camp was an effort to build up Olivia's confidence and self-esteem, but being asked to leave had the opposite effect.

I find it ironic that art instruction, both at this camp and in school, can be the least friendly environment for a child with special needs. Aren't artists often characterized by being different, dreamy, creative and marching to the beat of their own drums? Picasso said, "All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."

How does an art camp director have the audacity to exclude a child for non-conformity? I can't help but think of the words of Pablo Casals, a truly great artist,

We should say to each of [our children]: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you. Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers, the way you move. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must work, we must all work, to make the world worthy of its children.

I doubt the person who booted Olivia from art camp is reading this, but if he is, I have a question. Are you working to make your program worthy of all of the children who love art, even those who happen to have special needs?

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