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Yakety Yak: the language of friendship
For the eighth year in a row, a summer camp founded by a Lake Oswego resident will provide children with special needs and their siblings a place where they are truly understood and accepted.
Speech-language pathologist Angela Sullivan, whose children both have ADHD, says she started Camp Yakety Yak (CYY) in 2010 after growing tired of her son having issues at other summer camps.
"My son would get kicked out of typical camps when he was little, so I wanted to create a place that would be designed for kids like him," says Sullivan. "The first year, the camp took place in a friend's house, and we only had about 10 kids. I never could have predicted how big we have gotten."
Now, CYY runs five weeklong sessions throughout the summer at Mountain Park Church in Lake Oswego, each with a different theme — from "Yak Trackers and the Search for Bigfoot" to "Yak Kingdom: a Magical Quest." About 80-120 campers agtes 5-15 attend each session, according to Sullivan.
Camp Yakety Yak provides a "social-emotional education" for children with neurodevelopmental disorders and physical disabilities, including children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADHD, learning and communication disabilities, intellectual delays and cerebral palsy.
Sullivan designed the camp based on the "Reverse Inclusion" model, which strives to make children with special needs feel comfortable in their environment and not feel like outsiders. Seventy-five percent of campers have special needs, while the remaining 25 percent are "neurotypical" kids — mostly the siblings of special-needs campers.
"We wanted to create an environment that is really comfortable for special needs kids, where they don't have to try so hard or change themselves," Sullivan says. "The camper with special needs has the benefit of learning from a peer, and the neurotypical camper has a chance to connect with other neurotypical siblings, develop empathy and practice leadership skills."
At CYY, Sullivan says the staff focus on "anything that will make you a better friend." Campers learn about social skills and making friends, managing their feelings and emotions, and planning and organizing their lives.
Shannon Chollman, a Lake Oswego resident whose children have attended CYY for the past two years, says she couldn't have been happier with how things turned out.
"We chose Camp Yakety Yak because it offered exactly what we wanted for our son: experienced staff who are passionate about partnering with differently abled kids in a camp environment while also focusing on their specific developmental needs," says Chollman. "The incredible, knowledgeable staff recruited by Angela focused on our son's unique needs and made necessary accommodations for him."
Chollman says that not only did her son benefit from CYY, but her other children did as well. "I love that his neurotypical siblings can share the experience, which further equips them with compassion and support of their brother and other kids who are differently abled," she says.
Chollman believes CYY is especially important now, as conversations around diversity and inclusion increase in the Lake Oswego School District and the broader community.
"There has been a lot of focus on the need for diversity in the district just in the past year, and having our kids attending a camp like CYY helps them get an organic camp experience with differently abled kids while learning that we are all unique and have different abilities."
The camp's staff is made up of "red shirts" and "blue shirts." People wearing red shirts have advanced degrees in speech-language pathology or special education, or are part of the administrative staff. Blue shirts are worn by camp counselors, who range from mature middle-schoolers and high-schoolers to graduate students. Many counselors attend local universities; in fact, CYY partners with Portland State University and Pacific University.
"Not only does this camp benefit the campers, but it provides a really unique experience for the counselors," says Sullivan. In addition to helping the campers, she says, "we're also here to be a hands-on training ground for future professionals and help them jumpstart their career."
Sullivan says her favorite part of running CYY is seeing the progression of the campers.
"It's amazing to see the growth in the kids over the course of a week," she says. "They're getting five days in a row of specialized instruction, which is often much more than they get at school. The level of the intensity really does work. It's really fun to see."
CYY sessions begin July 9; for more information, visit www.campyaketyyak.org.
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