Counselors at one Philadelphia summer camp bring an extra dose of patience to work. The city-funded camp serves more than 70 kids who have serious behavioral issues and offers therapy along with traditional camp activities.
One of the main goals is to teach kids how to manage strong emotions.
The struggle not to fight
One of the campers, 15-year-old Isaiah Bennett, almost got into a fight the other night when he returned to his West Philadelphia neighborhood after spending the day at camp. He was at a park close to his house when another boy challenged him to fight.
Isaiah is tall and skinny. In his bright yellow camp T-shirt, he looks like a fidgety kid with a boyish smile, but he's trying to keep up a tough-guy facade.
"I was chillin' on a bench," he said. "Oh, no ... first, it happened at school," he recalled.
It's a long story, but the upshot is this: Isaiah didn't take the bait and, instead, de-escalated the situation.
"What you trying to get into?" Isaiah said he asked the other boy.
"He ran away, and then he got into a fight with somebody else," he continued.
Isaiah said new skills he has learned at a summer camp called STEP helped him stay calm. The Summer Therapeutic Enrichment Program is designed for kids who get kicked out in regular settings.
Providing a welcoming place for tough kids
"Many of these kids go to a regular camp and they get expelled the first week," said Ileana Helwig, the chief operating officer at Philadelphia's Children's Crisis Treatment Center, which oversees the therapeutic summer camp.
STEP offers the kids a traditional slice of happy summer, mixed with therapeutic interventions, she said. "At the beginning, they don't want to work with anybody, they have trust issues," she explained. "With patience, and also with different activities, clinical activities, the children learn to open up and look for help."
Staying out of fights and learning to control anger are the most important skills kids learn during the five-week camp, counselor Charles DeLeon said.
"I have to walk away, I have to express myself right now, I have to sit here quietly for five minutes. So, depending on the child, [the strategy] may be different," DeLeon said.
During a recent visit, two boys got into a quick argument that almost turned into a fight—but before it could escalate, a counselor wrapped his arm around one boy and said, "Come on, you don't want to do this, right?" The boys moved on.
DeLeon said camp counselors try to approach the kids with calm firmness, and lots of patience. "In school they are used to getting yelled at, 'This is wrong, you are always doing this.' And here we are more therapeutic in our approaches, speaking in a calm tone, and they react to our calmness," he said.
Activities, games and therapy
DeLeon said many of the kids at the camp have serious behavior problems in school. Some have have a diagnosis such as ADHD, and many have experienced sustained trauma. They are referred to the camp through other social services they are already receiving.
During a typical day at camp, kids meet at Hunter Elementary School for fun activities and therapeutic sessions, where they talk about emotions or learn social skills. They are also revitalizing a garden space in North Philadelphia.
"If they understand that they are part of the community, they work harder, littering won't be an issue," DeLeon said. "Respect is built and rapport is built, when they are part of the community."
DeLeon said if his team can manage to teach each kid at least one solid skill that helps them cope better with their emotions, then it's a summer well spent.
It worked the other night for Isaiah Bennett when he was able to walk away from that fight. He said part of his motivation was that he didn't want to be expelled from this camp.
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