Summer camp is an opportunity for children to explore and grow, make new friends and learn new skills — and now there’s an effort by three SCV residents to bring that summer camp experience to residents age 5 to 22 who are on the autism spectrum or who have other developmental disabilities, with experiences targeted to their ability levels.
The Superhero Inclusive Performing Arts Summer Camp will be held for its second year in July as a weeklong arts and expression camp designed to allow the “superhero” campers to gain confidence and learn to express themselves in a supportive environment.
Kristen DeBenedetto, owner and director of The Mindful Movement Center for Dance, and Rodney Dong of Dolce Music Services, both provide therapy services for youth with special needs.
When Dong’s son Kiran, who has a developmental disability, went to a performing arts summer camp a few years ago, the family quickly realized that going to a camp can be challenging for a child with special needs.
“While he was enthralled to be there and take part, it was just too difficult for him to sit through it in its entirety,” Dong said. “It was kind of heartbreaking for us because we just feel like there’s so many benefits he could have gotten from it.”
After realizing there aren’t any camps that target specifically kids with special needs in the local area, Dong and DeBenedetto decided to create their own performing arts camp, so Kiran and other children could have the chance to be creative and express themselves.
“We needed a little bit different level of attention,” DeBenedetto said. “So, I said, ‘Why not do our own? I can do dance and you can do music.’”
DeBenedetto and Dong then brought in Kathleen White, a mother to a child on the spectrum and someone with a background in theater, to add some acting and improvisation activities.
The superhero-themed program is centered around dance, theater and musical therapies to help kids of any age or ability to “find their inner superpowers,” according to DeBenedetto.
“There aren’t any options for kids with special needs to do theater, so to have it local is really great,” White said.
The camp’s theater activities will be something that the campers can do very easily, using basic improv games, but with the ability to build on them, White added.
“They will have simple instructions, be fun and basic, but also challenging,” White said. “It’s having the kids develop an awareness of other people around them, working with one another, watching and being able to react, which are skills everybody needs.”
The musical aspect will involve percussion instruments that campers don’t necessarily need to have musical training to know how to play so everyone can get involved, according to Dong.
“My goal is to try to provide an experience through musical participation that gets kids coming out of their shell a little bit, interacting with each other and expressing themselves,” Dong said.
Campers will spend the first four days of camp constructing a short performance, which will then be performed for friends and family on Saturday, camp organizers said.
“They will also be decorating capes and masks to find out what makes them unique and what they take pride in in themselves,” DeBenedetto said. “It’s really about inclusion. We really want all of our campers to find what makes them special and what is it that they’re proud of.”
Campers will also be joined by Bright Star Martial Arts, a studio that also offers a program for those with special needs, who will work with the kids one of the days to teach them some “superhero special moves,” DeBenedetto said.
“We want to build their confidence because they are just the most amazing, inspirational kids,” DeBenedetto said. “I love seeing how they see the world.”
The Superhero Inclusive Performing Arts Summer Camp is scheduled 1-3 p.m. July 23-26 with “Performance Day” beginning at 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 27. The camp is expected to be held at North Oaks Church of Christ, located at 27570 Whites Canyon Road in Canyon Country.
Campers with moderate to severe abilities are also encouraged to bring an aide, family member or responsible friend with them to the camp at no extra charge, according to camp organizers.
Registration is $175 if purchased before July 1 or $200 by July 15. Those in need of financial assistance can apply for a scholarship to attend.