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Children with Special Needs Find Comfort During Summer at a South Jersey Child Care Center

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

United In Care funded summer program at Glassboro Child Development Center focuses on pandemic-related child development issues

Students at Glassboro Child Development Center's summer program display their outfits as part of the camp's fashion design activites

When single mom Taylor witnessed her son DJ smiling and having fun with his peers during a summer camp event at Glassboro Child Development Center (GCDC), tears of joy streamed down her cheeks.

“I stood in the corner crying. I was so proud of him,” she says. “I never expected to see my son, who struggled so much, actually connect with anyone and just laugh and act like a normal kid.”

Because DJ has an autism diagnosis, Taylor watched her son struggle to fit in and adapt in traditional learning settings. As a rising-fourth grader, DJ enrolled in GCDC’s Summer Camp and things were about to change.

DJ started to emerge as a different kid. For the first time, he initiated making friends on his own, and was adjusting well. Before long, Taylor recognized the impact the program was having on DJ’s growth. So, she enrolled him full time at GCDC each summer since.

Reverberations of the Pandemic

Families like DJ and Taylor were the sparks driving United Way of Northern New Jersey’s United In Care project to help expand GCDC’s summer camp. With funds provided by United In Care, GCDC was able to strengthen their existing camp program to serve the increased number of PreK through 8th grade children with special needs that emerged during the pandemic.

United In Care’s mission is to increase the affordability and the quality of child care and early learning for New Jersey families known as ALICE—(Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and families in poverty. The program also aims to improve the quality of life for child care workers, many of whom are ALICE themselves.

A staff member with Glassboro Child Development Center works with a student one-on-one during the summer program.

Joan Dillion, Executive Director of GCDC, says the summer program was developed to provide high-quality programming that addresses not only the pandemic-related learning loss, but also focuses on social and emotional skill development that was compromised during the pandemic.

“For many children, there was loss of learning and other challenges stemming from the unique education situation brought on by the pandemic. For low-income children, it’s still amplified,” she says. “So, it’s our job to reduce the stressors and the impact on our kids.”

Dillon also noticed differences based on parental means and ability to accommodate virtual schooling versus those who struggled because of economic dynamics or who were essential workers. Many ALICE parents struggled to provide care and education for their children while maintaining their jobs, many as essential workers.

Innovative Approaches To deal with these issues, Dillon turned to the philosophy of the National Summer Learning Association, which says to address learning loss, every child’s unique talent needs to be discovered and nurtured. The staff’s early childhood training also taught them that children need their physical and emotional needs met before they can be motivated and attentive to learning.

Supported by United In Care’s funding, GCDC hired eight specially trained staff at competitive hourly rates to provide hands-on support to help children with a 1:3 staff-to-child ratio during the summer. This was especially helpful for children with emerging special needs.

“We needed extra staff to make sure someone was available to sit with a child and talk to them,” Dillon says. “As a child care center, we can’t go rushing in and say we’re going to fix their academics. Our job is to catch them. Our job is to say, ‘We got you.’ So, they don’t feel lonely, ignored or like they don’t belong.”

Like most of their programs, GCDC’s Horizon Camp was rooted in “STREAM” focusing on the standard fields of science, technology, reading, entrepreneurship, the arts, and math. Most of the activities included outdoor learning, teaching gardening and biology, nutrition, and cooking.

A ceramic pizza and burger "prepared" by one of the GCDC summer campers.

In one activity, campers created a budget for a lemonade stand, learned how to make it and price the items. Campers additionally learned altruistic values by donating half of their earnings.

“We really help them come out of their shell,” Dillion says. “Forming positive relationships with at least one really cool adult who really thinks the world of you... that's really what this model is about.”

Helping Families Access Summer Camp In addition to providing funding to GCDC, United In Care also helps to make the program financially accessible to ALICE families. Many ALICE parents struggle to afford the camp fees, and yet they are not eligible for childcare subsidy.

Another Horizon Camp parent, Appril Williams says that without United In Care’s tuition assistance, she would not have been able to send her son to summer camp. Like DJ, her son struggles with communication and has some behavior challenges. And as an ALICE parent, financially, the program was unaffordable to her.

“The first few weeks he had trouble adjusting, but with the help of the awesome staff, they were able to formulate different ways to make his summer camp experience the best it could be,” Appril says. “He was able to change his behavior and build his listening skills. I can’t thank GCDC and United In Care enough. He’s already looking forward to going back next year.”

Making Strides As for DJ, he keeps coming back to GCDC each year and continues to make significant improvement both socially and educationally. He has established friendships and through the encouragement of the GCDC staff, he’s developed an interest in animation and film. In fact, this past summer, DJ filmed and recorded the summer camp’s play. The center celebrated this achievement by giving DJ a trophy.

“I’ve never seen him more proud of himself. That trophy is his most prized possession, and it gave him the confidence that he needed so badly,” Taylor exclaims, beaming with pride. “Because of the staff at GCDC, they were able to tap into something that he could not have found on his own. He is so far ahead of where I ever thought he could be, which is truly a miracle to me.”

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