Under a bright blue sky, the group of 11 campers worked side-by-side, raking, shoveling, and transporting mulch by wheelbarrow at the Laurelwood Arboretum in Wayne. What appeared to be a typical camp outing, however, was actually a lesson in developing manual dexterity, building stamina, and teamwork.
The event was part of Career Camp 2010, a two-week program sponsored by Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest, a beneficiary agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, for students ages 16-21 who have been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“What makes Career Camp a unique experience is that we are providing vocational exposure to a population of students who have the ability to work, but because of their behaviors have great difficulty in maintaining employment,” said Lauren Klein, JVS coordinator of rehabilitation services, who directs the camp. “Our main focus is to teach vocational skills while at the same time addressing work-appropriate behaviors.”
An integral part of the program, now in its second year, is the opportunity for campers to sample different work stations set up at the JVS offices in East Orange. The skills in shipping and receiving that Paul LoCicero learned last summer enabled him to land a volunteer job at the Market Street Mission in Morristown. This year, back at Career Camp as a counselor-in-training, Paul models appropriate behavior and supervises campers at work stations, providing vital positive reinforcement. “I recommend this program to anyone on the autistic spectrum,” he said.
Each camper has an individualized curriculum based on a pre-camp vocational evaluation. The student-to-teacher ratio is three-to-one, and work adjustment training is provided in such areas as setting goals, pacing work, and appropriate dress and grooming. Campers enhance their social skills via an interactive computer program that teaches interpersonal and work acculturation techniques for nontraditional learners. Recreational activities build social and life skills, address sensory and communication issues, and teach methods to reduce stress.
In addition to shipping and receiving, work stations include a simulated grocery store, business and medical offices, and culinary and housekeeping departments.
Another critical component of Career Camp are the two field trips offered, which, said Klein, are more than just pleasure outings. The carefully selected excursions require the campers to put the skills they are learning to use in real-life settings.
Taking a bus, for example, is a routine activity for most people. Those with an ASD, however, must be taught how to navigate the public transportation system while employing appropriate social behavior. The Aug. 18 trip to the arboretum began with the campers (chaperoned by staff) taking a NJ Transit bus to Wayne; one camper practiced his social skills by engaging a passenger in conversation.
Once they arrived at their destination, the campers were warmly greeted by volunteers who handed out gloves and water bottles and offered direction and encouragement. Many people with an ASD lead sedentary lives; with rakes and shovels in their hands — some for the first time — the campers got to work.
Danielle Clark, 19, said she is happy at camp. “I already learned how to fold clothes, wash my hands, and use good manners,” she said. The last two skills are especially important as Danielle’s dream is to use the hand-drawn greeting cards she creates as the basis of an art business.
Leaning on his shovel while taking a short break, Jamal Wadood, 20, struggled to remember which work station he had enjoyed the day before. After Klein provided a few prompts, a huge smile lit up his face. “I was putting the paper in the right order,” he said triumphantly. Klein reminded him the process is called collating, a skill that will be helpful in finding a job for Jamal when he graduates from high school.
Last year’s program received a good deal of positive feedback from parents and school officials, who integrated the skills gained in camp into home life and the student’s IEP. This, explained Klein, is the ideal outcome.
As for the 2010 session, after just three days the staff had already seen remarkable improvement in campers’ behavioral and social skills. “The pride a camper feels when he or she masters a new skill is what this program is all about,” Klein said.
Career Camp this year was sponsored by the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, the Linda Bunis Haller Foundation, and CVS Caremark. Further information about the program and other rehabilitation services offered by JVS is available by contacting Klein at 973-674-6330, ext. 237, or firstname.lastname@example.org.