Camp kids laugh and scream as they run through an inflatable yellow and green obstacle course. Across the field, others play with hula hoops and bubbles while a game of duck-duck-goose is nearby.
These children aren’t just playing yard games. The activities are part of therapies designed to build their listening, speech and language skills.
Each summer, the University of Texas at Dallas provides a weeklong, unconventional environment for children with cochlear implants — an electronic device that helps provide a sense of sound to a person who is deaf or severely hard of hearing.
Vanna Vert, 10, has attended the camp since she was 4. She loves bouncing from obstacle courses to crafting.
“My favorite thing about camp is its where I can have new experiences and make new friends,” said Vanna, who had just finished painting a leather bookmark.
The camp is a “novel” setting for kids to use what they’ve learned in speech therapy and grow their skills around others who are working toward the same goals, said Amber Stehlik, a speech-language pathologist and auditory verbal therapist at the UT Dallas Callier Center for Communication Disorders who supervises the graduate students running the camp.
“It mimics recess, it mimics the classroom setting, but it’s hopefully a little bit more fun and a little bit more engaging so that they’re motivated to practice listening with that background noise,” Stehlik said.
This summer marks the 25th listening camp and the first time the children have come together in three years due to the pandemic.
The night before the first day of camp, 7-year-old Bentley Butts woke up about six times. He couldn’t wait for the waterslides and inflatable obstacle course.
His mother, Dori Butts, drove Bentley and his brother, Brody, 5, three hours from Coleman to the camp in Parker, a small town in Collin County. The family stays in a nearby hotel all week.
The brothers both got cochlear implants before they turned 2.
At camp, “no one is wondering what’s on their head or they’re not worrying about, ‘I’m going to be the only one that can’t hear anything when we’re playing in the water because I have to take my implants off,’ ” Dori Butts said. “It’s just a place for them to just be kids and have the camp experience.”
Grad students help kids achieve goals
Even something as simple as relay races has a purpose. It requires the campers to listen to instructions.
The loud and fun camp environment helps the kids learn to localize sound and recognize their friends’ voices. During water activities, when the kids take off their cochlear implants, they learn how to communicate with each other through sign language or other nonverbal gestures.
Meanwhile, UTD graduate students are growing their own skills too as they purposefully plan each activity to help kids at different levels, with different goals. The students, who are studying speech-language pathology, facilitate the camp activities under the guidance of experts from the Callier Center.
The most important aspect is watching the children interact, said Jaycie Wooten, one of the grad students.
“That’s how kids learn. They learn from their peers,” Wooten said.
At the beginning of camp, the grad students identify different speech, language and listening goals for each youngster. They can vary from pronouncing a specific sound to using the correct tense of words in a sentence.
They spend all week partnered with the same campers to help them achieve their goals, providing feedback and suggested exercises to parents.
“We just focus on where they’re at, and we enhance and go to the next level of where their speech, communication or hearing may be,” Wooten said.
A new environment to build skills
The camp builds on the skills children learned in therapy by applying them in a “natural” environment around others who are learning too, said Melissa Sweeney, camp director and director of speech pathology at the Callier Center.
Watching the children play also gives speech therapists and audiologists another look into how children are progressing and if they’re able to apply their skills in a real-world setting.
“Typically, in speech therapy, you’re working kind of in a contrived environment because you’re either in your office or maybe you’re in a classroom, so you’re setting up situations to be as natural as possible, but they’re not,” Sweeney said.
Wooten has worked with some of the children at the camp through a traditional therapy setting at the Callier Center.
This summer, she has seen another side of her kids and watched them “blossom.”
“Sometimes [in therapy] kids can be super quiet,” Wooten said. “They don’t get to actually act like themselves. They may not talk and communicate as much. But here, it’s like all shackles are off.”
Playing, listening to music, dancing and making art with others who have cochlear implants helps the campers bond and build self-confidence, the organizers said.
Many of the kids are the only ones at their schools who have the hearing device. But at camp, they all understand what each other is working through.
Ava Varela, an 8-year-old camper, said she doesn’t know anyone else at her school who has cochlear implants. She said coming to camp is “a great way to help you see how other people communicate with their implants.”
The camp also has high school and college volunteers who attended the camp when they were kids. This extra level of support gives kids someone to look up to who has been through the same things.
Emma Cook, a volunteer who attends Austin College, started attending the camp when she was 4. Cook still keeps in touch with friends she made over the years, and a few of them are volunteers, too.
“Growing up I had a hard time making friends in my own school because I was deaf and felt like I was left out,” Cook said. “So I came to this camp, where everyone’s the same, and I was able to connect with people on the same levels.”
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