Beaumont Paralympic sports camp inspires kids to get active, build friendships

Photo courtesy of Beaumont Health. Beaumont Health's Center for Exceptional Families Summer Camp participants took part in track and field activities at Dearborn’s Edsel Ford High School. Kennedy Mang (right) watches as Esmeralda Villalobos completes her shot put throw and Cameran Mayfield and Deanna Rocha wait for their turn.

Photo courtesy of Beaumont Health. Beaumont Health’s Center for Exceptional Families Summer Camp participants took part in track and field activities at Dearborn’s Edsel Ford High School. Kennedy Mang (right) watches as Esmeralda Villalobos completes her shot put throw and Cameran Mayfield and Deanna Rocha wait for their turn.

DEARBORN — The scene was any child’s summertime dream: running through a splash sprinkler, riding bikes and scooters, and walking or jogging around a fun-filled race course.

For 10 participants between the ages of 8 and 12, this was their very first triathlon experience.

The Beaumont Center for Exceptional Families hosted its eighth summer sports camp in June and July for children with developmental disabilities. This year, they were all Paralympians.

“The whole concept was inspired by the Olympics and Paralympics season,” organizer and therapist Stacy DeWald said. “As their typically developing siblings were heading off to basketball practice or camp, we wanted our kids with special needs to also work on those skills with their peers in a fun environment.”

“It’s not just sports camp,” said Veronika Rocha of Dearborn, the mother of 10-year-old Deanna, who has cerebral palsy. “They have the opportunity to socialize with each other and they have to talk with each other. Our kids get to interact with other kids like them and play sports they’ve never played before.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics,  6.5 million children ages 3 to 21 received special education services in the 2013-14 school year, or about 13 percent of all public school students. Among students receiving special education services, 35 percent had specific learning disabilities.

“The idea behind the camp was to provide a place for kids with multiple disabilities to be involved with sports activities to enhance their skills just like their typically developing siblings,” said Michelle O’Connor-Teklinski, assistant director of the Beaumont Center for Exceptional Families.

“Children with a disability may not feel comfortable participating in a traditional camp, so we came up with an activity that would challenge them and create new dimensions and activities we haven’t offered before. It’s very exciting to see how it’s evolved over the years.”

Camper Cameran Mayfield is a typical 10-year-old with high-functioning autism who loves sports. Because of the confidence he’s built at camp, he’s decided to try out for his school’s soccer team for the first time this fall.

His mother, Marlena Cameran, of Taylor, said the difference between Cameran now and two years ago is that he’s been able to build a network of friends. She said he’s also enhanced his sports confidence as a result of the activities.

“It’s a safe environment where he gets to have fun,” Marlena said. “The camp helps with his coordination, and communication. It’s given him the confidence to build friendships and believe in himself and his abilities.”

The camp is six-weeks long and highlights a new Paralympic-inspired activity each week. Cameran was one of the 10 participants who experienced everything from table tennis to rowing skills to a mini-triathlon. Each sporting activity is supported by therapists and provides leeway for modifications.

DeWald specifically chose the Paralympics theme to encourage the CEF’s children to feel comfortable trying new activities with their peers and to have a place where kids can be kids regardless of diagnosis or ability.

“This takes therapy one step further,” DeWald said. “When kids are being seen with physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, our main goal is for them to be able to participate in life activities with their peers in a safe environment.”

On track and field day, campers gathered with coaches for a rundown of the day’s activities and instructions. Their smiles and laughter gave way to the hands-on games on deck.

“This is such a great opportunity for my son to work on his core strength and motor skills,” said Christian Martinez’s mother, Capri Martinez of Flat Rock. “Christian is 10 and has high-functioning Asperger’s with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, so there are not always a lot of traditional sporting options where they’re equipped to help with or accommodate his needs.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 6 children in the United States has a developmental disability. The CEF serves as a medical home for children with multiple developmental disabilities, ranging from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to more serious diagnoses such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy and autism.

“It’s been amazing to have a really strong support system in Dr Youngs’ office,” said Rocha. “Deanna is the only child in our family with special needs. It’s hard, but it’s nice to know you have the same faces that understand what’s going on and they understand you as an individual. They take the time with us and to me that’s a real blessing.”

The summer camp concluded with an awards ceremony in August recognizing all the participants for their efforts.