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'These Kids Still Need Each Other'

Recreation Therapist Finds a Way to Have Annual Summer Camp Amid COVID-19

As families struggled to find activities outside that were safe this summer during the pandemic, patients at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Salt Lake City were given the option to play. Recreation therapist Laura Lewis Hollingshead, CTRS, TRS, knew figuring out how to keep a sense of normalcy for her summer camp kids at the Salt Lake City Shriners Hospital could make a big difference. Grouping kids together by diagnosis and ability level, these small group camps have been a favorite of many families for years. With changing hospital protocols amid the pandemic, Laura knew it would be tricky, but was committed to finding a way.

“Because of hospital guidelines in response to CDC and Utah Department of Health guidelines,” said Laura, “we’ve had to be more cognizant of all the little things.” While hospital leadership supported finding a way to have the camps under the new guidelines, they were deemed as non-essential patient activities, which meant Laura and her team had to get creative. The camp was moved outside to the hospital grounds to allow the hospital halls be limited to patients coming for their appointments. They also shortened the camps from 90 minutes to an hour to limit the amount of time in the heat. Laura has found that for the most part, though it’s hot outside, the kids have been good about wearing their masks. In addition, all the equipment used is sanitized and cleaned between each use and social distancing is applied during the camp.

An important aspect of these camps that is intentionally woven in is allowing the parents to visit, separately from the group. “That’s huge, especially for this group,” said Laura, referring to the moms sitting a distance away in the shade. “They’re such a support system for each other.” The moms greeted each other excitedly as they arrived and happily chatted while their kids participated in the drum circle.

The spina bifida group giggled and wiggled in their wheelchairs with a drum in front of them (or to the side – wheelchair foot pedals can get in the way.) Nels Anderson from Drum Utah taught the kids how to best hit the drum, did some storytelling with them and played games with the drums. Nels has been leading groups in drum circle activities for 10 years. He does it solely because he sees the value in group activities and seeing people laugh and be silly. “I like to get people acting like kids, whether they are or not,” said Nels, “and just having fun together.”

There was one particular girl in the spina bifida group who was shy and did not participate at first, but a few minutes in, she started giggling. That was the moment Nels knew he was a part of something wonderful. “I just love singing with kids. Once they start making noise, when they start giggling, when she let out a funny little giggle, that just made me so happy.”

Laura sees this play time as an incredibly beneficial therapeutic activity. “Any time these kids can be in a group setting with social interaction, it’s very important,” said Laura. “Especially now where physically we need to maintain social distancing, but emotionally, we need to be around each other.”

The social cohesion of the kids being together but also creating their own individual sound speaks to Laura’s goals as a recreation therapist. “These kids may all have spina bifida, but within that diagnosis, they’re still all individuals, they still have things that make them special and different.”

Laura also likes to be able to create some stability with the families that participate in the camps. “I think it’s important for these kids to still know, in the summer, we do camp at Shriners Hospital. Life may look different and school may or may or may not look the same going back this fall. Whatever we can do to help provide that continuity of what is normal for these kids. And I’m grateful that Shriners Hospitals for Children sees that and allowed for us to still do camps this summer.”

two patients in drum circle

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