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'It's not something you expect to exist': AAC Camp helps kids with disabilities experience summer camp

The Advancing Adventures in Communicating Camp is in its 17th year of making sure children who use speech-generating devices to communicate can experience camp.

IDAHO, USA — Summer camp is a staple for many kids - a time to make memories and friends. One program is making sure children with disabilities also get that experience.

Advancing Adventures in Communicating (AAC) Camp is for children who use speech-generating devices to communicate. The camp brings kids and their families from across the Northwest to Meridian to learn, grown and have fun together. 

The camp is a community collaborative project brought together by Idaho State University, St. Luke's, and the Idaho Assistive Technology project to help kids with speech devices get an opportunity to go to summer camp.

"It's not something you expect to exist," Marissa Smith, the mother of a 7-year-old camper named Winston, said. "I mean, I've got a kid who's in a wheelchair, who's legally blind, and who is nonverbal, right. So, the idea of being able to find a place that he can be. I mean, the fact that I can walk away from him, and I know he's fine, is just not something you expect."

AAC stands for augmentative and alternative communication. AAC Camp is an accessible camp for children with disabilities who use speech-generative devices to communicate. 

"It's a small world, but it makes it feel less small," Smit said. "You kind of end up feeling a little alone because your world is so different. So being part of a group, you realize, 'Oh, all these people are somewhere in the same world.' It's a really neat feeling."

AAC Camp is in its 17th year of making summer camp accessible.

"Many of these kids don't go to camp, they don't get the opportunity to be with peers - they're the only one in their school, they're the only one in their town that has a communication system," Anne Kuhlmeier, AAC Camp director and assistive technology coordinator for St. Luke's said. "So, this opportunity of bringing them together gives them a place to make friendships and see other kids that are like themselves."

Children with disabilities use their speech-generating devices to communicate by using their eyes, switches, or touch. 

"It will talk, so it gives them a voice to communicate their thoughts and ideas," Kuhlmeier said.

Each one of the 20 campers is paired with a trained counselor from Idaho State University and are given a chance to learn and play through stories, games, movement and music. 

"It's really fun to see the cogs moving and everything connecting," Smith said. 

And a chance to make their world a little bigger.

"It's nice to see how [Winston] can use it in a group setting," Smit said. "He doesn't get a lot of group setting, he's usually in the special ed classrooms - there's only a couple of kids. So being in an environment that has a lot of different people, a lot of different kids is positive."

Kuhlmeier says AAC Camp is a one-of-a-kind program in the Northwest, campers have come from across Idaho - and other states to be part of the program. 

"We had no idea we were going to have a special kid like him," Smith said. "We probably would have thought we had to be in Dallas, or LA or somewhere where everything is. But we really have enough of this stuff to give him that great life."

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