When speech-language pathology graduate students Emily Gammon, Allison Walsh and Lindsay Woodruff started their master’s program in the WVU College of Education and Human Services, they discovered they would be required to spend five days in July working as camp counselors at Camp Gizmo.
At the time, they never imagined that sacrificing a long summer weekend would transform so many lives—not only their own, but those of the children who attend the camp.
Housed on the campus of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind in Romney each summer, Camp Gizmo gives West Virginia children from birth to age eight with significant and multiple developmental needs the opportunity to work with students and professionals to identify and apply new strategies for improving their communicative challenges.
WVU’s College of Education and Human Services has been involved for nearly two decades through the efforts of Clinical Assistant Professor Karen Haines, who incorporates the Camp Gizmo experience into the curriculum for speech-language pathology graduate students.
Haines has her students take an augmentative communication class to prepare them for their camp experience. It’s then that they apply the concepts learned in the classroom through their work with the children and provide them with another way to communicate.
The students are trained to work with augmentative devices that are computer-based and come programmed with language systems, essentially giving children the ability to generate speech through the device.
“The influence that Camp Gizmo has on the children and our students is incredible,” Haines said. “In most cases, the children who attend the camp are faced with communicative disorders that render them non-speaking. Our students provide them with a way to communicate for the first time.”
For Gammon, Walsh and Woodruff, the impact of giving a child the ability to speak and parents the ability to engage in two-way communication with their child was powerful beyond measure.
“The child I worked with was two years old and couldn’t retain words for longer than a week,” Walsh said. “Imagine being a parent and living daily with the reality that your child can’t understand what you’re saying. Being involved with bridging that gap is so emotional—it made me realize that working with kids with disabilities is truly a calling.”
The emotion involved in working with children with disabilities—including spina bifida and cerebral palsy—was an intense learning experience for these three students. All said they learned an important lesson about the realities of working in a helping profession that they couldn’t have derived through any class or book.
“Working with children with disabilities is emotional on a level that we couldn’t have anticipated,” Gammon said. “We often felt overwhelmed by the experience at the end of the day, but we realized that we had to check our emotions to the side to provide these kids with the best services possible.”
The trio also realized that maintaining composure and professionalism was equally as important for the families as it was for the children.
“We had to be strong and be there for the parents,” Woodruff said. “They are already very emotional because of the realities of what they are facing every day with their child. Going through the whole experience through their eyes really helped us grow, as did the entire Camp Gizmo experience.”
One of those parents is Greg Foley, the father of Noah, who started attending Camp Gizmo when he was just 18 months and even took his first steps there. He is now eight years old and Foley said his son has improved his communication ability as a result of the experience.
“The speech-language pathology students from CEHS have been wonderful,” Foley said. “They’ve helped us understand how much Noah can achieve with communication. We’ve witnessed progress; the students have given him the ability to make choices that help him communicate with us.”
The impact these students make with his son is written all over Noah’s face, Foley said.
“The CEHS students were truly so great with Noah. They always played with him and got him laughing and smiling. People just can’t imagine how much they give of themselves to be part of these kids’ lives. It really is touching for the families to see how much they invest in our children,” he said.
That investment in the children is the most rewarding part for Haines, who said her students always come back changed by the experience.
“Every year, I have to convince my students to give up five days of their summer break to do this,” Haines said. “But, you know what? They all come back asking if they can go back next year. It is truly a transformative experience for them.”
Her students couldn’t agree more.
“Professor Haines has helped us realize that we really changed these children’s lives,” Gammon said. “But I can’t emphasize enough how much they’ve changed ours, too.”
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