Youths Pick Up Social and Coping Skills Via Summer Program
By Rick Hiduk
As many as 36 youths from primarily Bradford County have spent six hours per day together during an eight-week of summer camp program in Towanda that provides activities that have helped them deal with social skills, emotional issues, and challenges with problem solving. The two four-week Summer Action Therapeutic Program (STAP) sessions were an outreach of NHS, a nonprofit social services agency based in Sayre that serves Bradford, Sullivan, and Tioga Counties.
NHS, with support of a parent office in Philadelphia, offers a range of integrated, community-based programs and services for adults and children with mental health issues, as well as intellectual and developmental disabilities and addictive diseases. The STAP day camp is an offshoot of NHS’ Behavioral Health Rehabilitation Program.
Licensed psychiatrists and psychologists determine eligibility for the program. “Each child must have a psychological evaluation and (involvement in the program) must be deemed medically necessary,” said NHS behavioral health rehabilitation services supervisor Margaret Fontenot, who has worked for the agency since 2007.
That medical necessity isn’t apparent when watching the participating children play with hula-hoops and balls on the lawn of the First United Methodist Church in Towanda, where the 5- to 11-year-old children have been meeting this summer. One hears laughter and sees happiness among the youngsters, albeit the occasional (and seemingly normal) squabble.
“The nice thing about camp is that it gives them a chance to be with their peers, and it’s not constant therapy,” Fontenot remarked.
There is more than meets the eye, however, as day camp counselors, each of which is a professional in a related field, conduct games, activities, and group discussions that address feelings, anger management, bullying, diversity, and conflict resolution. As one would hope with any summer camp situation, a great impetus is placed on helping the youths to foster friendships.
“We do a lot of group games to help them learn to play together, because some of them don’t know how to do that,” related three-year counselor Amber Brennan of Athens, who carries a bachelor’s degree in social work from Shippensburg University.
Indoor activities for the younger children this summer included creating a zoo mural with cutouts representing which animal each participant would like to be. Counselors then asked the youngsters to explain what about their respective choices appealed to them. According to STAP unit supervisor Lowell Patton, who has a Masters in Divinity degree from Bangor Theological Seminary, the responses from the children offer some laughs but also insight. It is the structure the program provides for children that helps them to accomplish goals of which they are often not consciously aware.
“I like to see the kids improve,” Patton said of the daily records of progress on each child that are maintained by the STAP counselors. “I like to think that there are no ‘bad’ kids, just good kids with bad behaviors.” Patton serves NHS as a behavioral specialist consultant and mobile therapist.
Across town at the Universalist Unitarian Church, 12- to 18-year-old STAP day campers also played games and engaged in supervised discussions, but they were involved in a number of community service projects that enhance the youths’ abilities to focus on particular tasks and team-building. In addition to doing light cleaning and planting flowers at the church, the older STAP participants stayed behind to clean up at the Keystone Theatre after children and teens from both age groups attended a private screening of the current “Smurfs” movie together.
Other field trips enjoyed by all of the youths this summer included visits to a museum, a library, and Mt. Pisgah State Park. “We try to include the families in (field trips) if they are available,” Brennan related.
Fontenot noted that STAP participants come from both traditional families and foster homes but, at day camp, they are peers. “They have a lot of experiences to share with each other, and they are very supportive of each other,” she said of the youths, noting that they look forward to participation in activities with other children and teens who are more like themselves.
Participation in the STAP day camp has grown in the three years that NHS has conducted it, and Fontenot suggested that it might be offered at additional locations next year. The growth of the program is limited slightly by both funding and the necessity to maintain a three-children to one-staff-member ratio.
To learn more about NHS, interested readers may log on to www.nhsonline.org.