Say Yes! to Summer Camp

Chris Pierce is the Director of Via West, part of Via Services. It’s an organization over half a century old that provides early intervention services in a clinic setting, and offers a camp experience to participants ages five and up, including people in their 70s and 80s, at their Via West campus in the Santa Cruz mountains, just a few minutes drive from the heart of Silicon Valley. The client needs range from autism, to mild physical or cognitive impairments to those with more significant mobility issues and medical concerns.

Chris how did you come to be a camp director and why do you think camp is so important?

It was an integral part of my personal child hood. My father was a founder of an adult special needs program back at the camp he started outside of Chicago, Illinois. It’s been in my DNA from day one. I was also a camper starting at about nine years old, and then worked at camp as early as 13 or 14. I can honestly say it’s been a part of my life since my earliest memories.

My career started with third largest camp in the Salvation Army structure (The Salvation army is very comparable in number of camps to the YMCA).  From there I was recruited to a camp outside of Colorado and I was there for 7 almost 8 years. Then I moved on to be the Group Executive Director for the YMCA of Greater Seattle, and managed two resident camps, the primary being Camp Orkila, located on Orcas Island in the Puget Sound, which saw more than 22,000 participants a year.

What is the biggest difference you see, or is there a difference between a camp that caters to special needs versus a typical summer camp?

In the past where I may have said that camping is really powerful and developmentally sound for the camper, in this situation what I’ve noticed, is that special needs camping programs like this, are as beneficial for the child, teen or adult, as it is for the parent or caregiver. Obviously the real winner is the participant, but I also see very strong improvement in the health and welfare of the parents and caregivers that are able to let go.

Those caregivers can go, and spend time with their significant other or go fishing, or go to a movie. I asked one mom, “Why do you choose our camp?” And she answered, “So I can take one hot bath a year.” Well, I think moms deserve more than one hot bath a year. In this situation as much as it’s always been beneficial for the campers and the parents before, at this point I think it is extraordinarily beneficial for both parties.

We’ve talked a bit about how hard it can be for a parent or caregiver of someone with extra needs to let go. It was very hard to believe that anyone could care for my loved one with the same level of care that I can. What do you do at the Via West campus to assuage those fears and make it less scary?

First of all, I want to say, it is scary because it is scary. As a parent myself, I know we are making decisions: what’s the best car seat? what’s the safest bottle? is it glass or plastic? We cover up outlets and we do childproofing. Then, when you consider a child, teen or adult with special needs, it amplifies everything. In many cases there is a tremendous level of personal care that goes into working with an adult or child with special needs, and there is the question of how will that care be duplicated anywhere but at home, and I think that’s a really relevant question.

The reason we have done so well over the last 55 nearly 60 years, is that we recognize that. And while we know we can never be exactly like home, we have clients who have been coming for 30 years, and when you ask them why, they say that they feel like it is their home away from home.

And so there are things that we do here: We hire quality skilled staff, and we really train that staff. We also have a phenomenal nursing team that can address those issues, and some of our nurses are also parents of children with special needs.

We do our best to be a mirror image of the home in this outdoor setting. Unlike other camp experiences where you have homesick kids go home, I have yet to see one homesick child since I’ve been here at the Via West campus or heard of a child who left because it just didn’t work out. If anything, I see participants crying or acting out because they don’t want to go home.

So I think the fear lies within us as parents. That’s why we encourage caregivers to visit our facility in advance. We’re open all the time. We love to show parents, and let them experience our property, see what we do, meet our team and I would encourage anyone who is doing this for the first time to do.

I keep hearing “team”, “staff”, what do you look for in those candidates?

schoolers that we put through a training throughout the year. They volunteer and are paired with a counselor with more experience. They are vetted, and have a trial period. We basically have an in-house leadership development program. Probably 70% of our staff come through that vehicle, working respite weekends, side-by-side with experienced staff. Then there’s interviewing. And we do thorough background checks and finger printing.

But what we do our best to determine are those other qualities. At the end of the day it’s the true care for an individual, so there’s care, and we’re looking for personality, and the flexibility, the nurturing, and the ability to say “It’s okay to get dirty. We’re going to have fun.” It’s an outdoor setting, and we really see our clients open up out here. We’re trying to knock down some of those barriers and the right staff that knows how to balance all of those things.

Are those security checks standard practice?

We do Live Scan and background checks, and while it’s not necessarily common, it’s becoming more standard at other places.

What about other certifications? CPR, and other first aid training?

All of our staff are CPR certified and a lot of our staff have received first responder certification. The foundation here is that we’re accredited with American Camp Association. People may hear it, and if they’re not familiar with that means they don’t know the high standards. That folder is 8-10 inches thick, with 2-3 mandatory standards on each page. You must show proven evidence that you are meeting those standards, like those background checks and finger printing. That’s done every two years. We did our certification last year with close to 100% compliance.

What are some things to look for that make a great camp?

  • Great staff that is a part of the fabric of that camp
  • Quality staff that is on-board and familiar with the program
  • Camps that are accredited
  • Safety, both safety measures that are taken and emergency procedures and how they are trained to handle emergencies.
  • History, longevity. How long has the camp been around?
  • Strong, thought-out program outcomes. What are we teaching? What are we doing? and how does it correspond with the participants’ interests?

If you have a participant who is really interested in arts and crafts, you’re not just looking for cutouts and construction paper, but a strong, well-thought out curriculum. It’s critical here at Via West. We’re not just teaching, arts and crafts, we’re teaching social skills and independence skills. What we’re doing dives much deeper. It’s really a partnership between us and the parent or caregiver. We evaluate and have a dialogue prior to coming to our campus, during the time they’re here and after there’s an evaluation. Even if they’ve been coming for 30 years, each year we ask, what is it that we can do to help improve that person’s experience? and I think that’s why we’ve had those same clients coming year after year.

What would be some red flags, or some indicators of a bad camp?

It would be hard to say that any camp is really bad, but you have to use some of that common sense. I’m assuming that a parent would see that a day camp at a movie theatre is really kids sitting in seats in a theatre, and is that how we want to define the word camp? If I don’t see experience, certified, skilled staff, then I start to say to myself, “This is someone using the word camp and it’s not really camp, and maybe I have other choices.” Same logic that we apply to other choices, when we choose services: Do I want to do business with someone who is a skilled craftsman or an apprentice? Do I want a camp that is a master craftsman experience?

Can quality staff overcome facilities that are lacking?

I think it can. In our world facilities are very important, and it’s great that here, our lodges are brand new, fully accessible, and were designed for special needs, other camp programs, and it’s not the end of the world, but the facilities they are using are not designed for children, teens and adults with special needs. A great staff can overcome a lot, and I tend not to get as hung up on it, but it’s really nice to have wonderful facilities, like our pool has “zero entry”, those kind of things.

What about special safety precautions? For example, one of the things I love about Via West is that there’s a fence!

There is a fence! We’re the only facility I know of that has a fence enclosing the property. The moment that last parent pulls out we have that gate closed, which may sound dramatic, but if you are the parent or a caregiver of a child, teen or adult…it makes sense to you. We also have a full time nurse, and a nursing staff in house at all times. Other camps take liberties with this; they might have an EMT, or certifications but they’re not truly an RN with experience working with this population.

We only staff 1:1 or 1:3 and never go beyond that, and we have multiple levels of supervision lodge leaders, unit leaders, counselors. And we hire specific people for program areas in which they are skilled. And we maintain those roles: our counselors are counselors, and program staff is program staff.

That goes back to a master craftsman ability versus an apprentice

How have the cuts from the State budget hurt camps? Who supports the camp?

It has been hard, for everyone, but we are getting some funding. We all recognize the situation; I understand the realities of these economics first hand. We know that families are having to make difficult choices and we are watching how our state is reacting. This is where tenure and reputation in the community help us a lot. We have some wonderful organizations that continue to support us. As we speaking I can hear buzz saws from the construction team who is working on the lodge pro bono.

And other organizations are out there who want to help to send children, adults and teens for a summer experience, when they otherwise might not be able to afford that experience. And this is where parents struggle, thinking that help, that it’s for someone else, “not for me.” We do have more families in the middle class asking for help and we are encouraging those people to ask for help.

If it’s a matter of not having you child go to camp, then pursue that help, and in our case, we know families will return the generosity in spades. So much of our funding comes from our Bridge the Gap campaign, with families and kids, and adult participants chipping in a little when they have those extra dollars to give the gift of a summer experience to someone else.

Times have been tough, but it is worth asking, because it’s important; this experience is important developmentally for the participant, and it’s beneficial to those parents and caregivers too.

It’s the sixth year my son will be going to Via West campus for a week during the summer. Those days of happy playing in the woods will be, for the most part, funded by his grandparents who have found a way to give my son exactly what he wants for Christmas, and it always fits perfectly. If you are interested in Via West, please visit or visit their Facebook page. There are still spaces left in both the adult and youth summer sessions, which run June, July and August. I am also happy to answer any specific questions. -Jennifer