Summer Camps: Helping Children and Youth Cope with Neurological Disorders

Shelby Challis 

As summer approaches, many of us might be beginning to look forward to vacations abroad, or even just some  free time that we can finally spend at our leisure. However, for many families and caregivers of children with mental health disorders, the summer months mark an extremely stressful period. Not only is their child’s normal routine disrupted, but it is also a period in which those families who are struggling to make it often do not have the finances to bring summer camp—and its sense of community—to their children.

The demand for child and youth mental health care services has been steadily increasing not only throughout Ontario’s health care system, but throughout our public and private spheres more broadly. The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care had identified child and youth mental health as a priority within its 2011 mental health and addictions strategy. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) has also been leading  the efforts in developing population-based studies in order to measure trends in mental health and addiction service use among our province’s youth population, the first study of its kind in Ontario.

CAMH has found that emergency visits, hospitalization, and office-based services for mental health within this population group has been steadily increasing. This work, by both quantifying the need for mental health, and identifying potential patterns among this demographic group, will help to ensure that the right evidence is being relied on moving forward when the province continues to drive towards its commitments.

There have, however, been recent developments on the provincial level that signal a decrease in spending on disability benefits. The Ministry of Children and Youth Services announced last month that it will be decreasing the wait times for intensive therapy for young children by changing the eligibility requirements. The new autism program aims to cut those wait times in half for intensive behavioural intervention (IBI) within a span of two years. IBI is a comprehensive approach that is taken to teach new skills and behaviors to children with autism. These skills include: communication, socialization, self-help, and pre-academics. The program will now only target children with autism who are 5 and younger, resulting in 1,300 children that will be turning 5 within the next two years no longer qualifying for assistance. Therefore, the eligibility window for IBI is narrowed to include only children between the ages of 2-4.

Despite cuts to IBI services, there has been an increase in recreational summer services that are specifically designed for children who are living with a mental health disorder. One such program is Camp Winston, also known through its charitable registration name as The Pine Bay Foundation. Winston is an overnight recreational summer camp designed for children with complex neurological disorders such as learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

The ultimate objective of the experience is oriented towards eliminating the debilitating barriers associated with stigmatization, allowing for kids to have a camp experience without the feelings of judgement or alienation they too often receive as a consequence of their disorder. For many of the campers, Winston is their first experience feeling a part of a supportive community.

Located on Sparrow Lake in the Muskoka region of Ontario, the camp maintains its operations throughout the year. Activities at the camp range from various recreational activities, such as kayaking, various sports and theater, to offering retreats for parents in order to teach various coping strategies and techniques to help them manage with their child’s disability.

Staff at the camp, many of them former campers themselves, are trained and have experience working with children with special and complex needs, and are therefore able to identify with some of the issues their campers are going through. This bond that campers are able to develop with the staff is an essential component of the service that Winston is able to deliver.

I spoke with Denise Fruchter, the founder and co-director of Camp Winston, and asked what motivated to initiate the camp.  Denise said

“I remember being a child—with ADHD, tics, learning disabilities, and poor social skills—who was always in trouble, isolated, and sad at summer camp. It has been a privilege to found a safe haven where our campers get to learn social and recreational skills in a context of both love and support.”

One of the camp’s biggest long-term challenges is ensuring stable, predictable funding. Winston’s philosophy is “pay what you can, when you can.” As such, there is no expectation that families will be paying the full cost of their services through out-of-pocket expenses. Winston staff describe their approach to service delivery as a “whole and healthy concept of respite.” What this means is that, if what a family gains from a service is lost due to the stress that comes with the finances for having to cover program enrolment, that service has fundamentally failed to deliver.

In its 2016 Ontario budget, the provincial Liberal Government announced that it will be committing $333 million for autism services. This investment means increased funding for employment and housing opportunities—vital areas in their own right—along with research into effective intervention strategies. There is not, however, any explicit commitment to providing additional funding for summer camps like Winston.

Similarly, Winston does not receive any regular government funding, rendering it completely reliant on donations from various individuals, foundations, and corporations. This arrangement has left the program’s long-term viability in a precarious situation.

Summer camp can provide a unique opportunity to find acceptance and inclusion within a community of your peers. Children with mental health disorders deserve this experience too.


Shelby Challis is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She previously completed an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science at the University of Toronto, and has since worked for the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care. Her policy areas of interest include healthcare finance, labour relations, and security management.


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