Pursuing Excellence: How Teenage Campers Gain Independence Through Service and Travel

by Carol A. Stone, MS, CTRS

When one thinks of their "teenage years" perhaps ideas such as high school, team athletics, dances and friends come to mind. Perhaps other ideas come to mind as well, like struggling to fit in, struggling to gain independence and feeling "awkward."

What might come to mind for youth with physical disabilities? More than likely many of these same ideas and challenges as, according to Erickson1, all teenagers (identified as ages 12 and up) have normal developmental tasks such as:
  • successful attainment of personal identity
  • struggle to determine own selfness yet still rely on others
  • coming to terms with personal values and goals
  • external pressures of school, work, peers, dating

No doubt these challenges are often made more pronounced or more difficult to overcome when an individual has a disability. This may be due to prejudice, social isolation, over-protectiveness, lack of accessibility or a combination. While the changes over the past ten years, including encompassing legislative such as the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have increased opportunities to integrated educational environments, barriers to full social integration still exist. These barriers may be imposed by the community, the family and/or by the individual themselves.

The following identifies the potential effects of disability or chronic illness on adolescents as it relates to their above listed normal developmental tasks. They list the following as potential effects:

  • poor body image, embarrassment
  • advanced understanding of illness/body functioning
  • perceptions that "different" may mean "imperfect"
  • resentment/anger at dependence on parents and medical care
  • intensified struggle for independence
  • tendency to rebel or refuse to comply

Programs specifically geared to serve adolescents with disabilities can assist them in developing a sense of independence, social skills and positive self-image. Thus these adolescents enter adulthood feeling empowered and successful. Two such programs for adolescents have been developed by the Bradford Woods Outdoor Education and Leadership Center.

Established in 1941 by Indiana University, Bradford Woods is a 2,400 acre Outdoor Education and Leadership Center serving youth with physical disabilities. Even though the program has been in existence for a number of years, the Bradford Woods mission has stayed the same: to be a global leader in the provision of accessible outdoor education and recreation for youth and adults with and without disabilities.

The majority of campers begin their camp experience at Bradford Woods at the age of 8 and continue to attend every summer until they are the age of 18. The staff at Bradford Woods works hard to ensure that the 10 seasons a youth spends coming to camp are new and different each year-increasing in challenge and leadership opportunities as the youth continues to grow and mature.

Two innovative ways Bradford Woods Camping Programs challenges young adults to reach their highest levels of independence is through programs of travel (Top It Off) and service (Pursuits of Excellence). Through hard work, service, community integration, and lots of fun these programs encourage youth with disabilities to "move out of their comfort zone." In doing so, the young adult's skills and knowledge in the areas of personal leadership, group leadership, communication, social skills, independence, self advocacy and access issues become heightened.

TOP IT OFF: "The Foundation"

Top It Off is a 14-day traveling camp experience for 17-18 year olds with disabilities. This program is designed to meet the maturing needs of campers who have been participating in the on-site camping program from previous seasons. Typically this program accommodates 5-7 young adults, most of whom are about to spend their last year at camp. The majority of the campers who attend this camp already have high degrees of physical independence (i.e. self-care, unaided mobility, high levels of cognitive functioning and processing) OR a high ability to achieve these states and may require an extra "push"--which no doubt this experience will encourage and provide.

Typically, the experience is assigned three staff. Two cabin staff are trained in personal care and physical care to assist the campers on an "as needed basis." A trip leader is trained in off-site trip protocol and Wilderness First Aid. At least one of the three staff is required to have a Public Passengers Chauffeurs License, as the primary mode of transportation is a fully accessible 16-passenger bus. It is critical that the staff members on this trip have the appropriate certifications and experience and that they have put the proper protocols in place prior to departure. Staff confirm risk management plans, travel itineraries and site plans. In addition, they develop specific protocols for traveling including: effective medication management, utilizing appropriately staffed public facilities and calling at scheduled times to check-in with the home-base program staff.

The journey begins……

The campers arrive on opening Sunday like they have on numerous other opening days: full of excitement and anticipation of what is to come. They spend the next two to three days in intensive "team-building" sessions using program modules and universal challenge course elements that enable the youth to engage in activities and carry out tasks that are specifically designed to challenge and push the group towards a solid cohesion. This cohesion will be critical in the days to come, as they will need to be able to rely on themselves (helping to cook their own meals or put up their own tent) and rely on others (assistance in activities, moral support, physical support). These teambuilding activities challenge the campers to "push beyond their comfort zones" while still within the safe, comfortable environment of camp. The activities also teach skills on trust, communication, and conflict resolution as all of these issues will more than likely surface as they will be living and working together for an extended period of a time. Many of these activities are purposely designed to be frustrating to help prepare them for some of the frustrations they may face on this trip or in life. The activities are "processed " by trained staff to help the campers transfer these skills to issues that may arise while traveling. Along with teambuilding, they also devise planning and packing lists, knowing that when they leave camp they will be away for the next seven days! On day three they load a U-haul and prepare to embark on what always is the journey of a lifetime!

The learning continues…..

During their adventure, campers participate in all kinds of activities from attending amusement parks and the theater to water play and rafting. As with any group trip, the participants had to learn to work as a team, appreciating different personalities, overcoming fears, building new interests and respecting different leadership styles. They also found themselves challenged at times by limited or no access to restrooms at state parks, limited or no access to rides, accessible parking spaces but no curb cuts and the list goes on. However, the staff and campers of this incredible trip are sure to utilize these "barriers" as opportunities: opportunities for increased self-awareness, opportunities for increased self advocacy, and opportunities to teach others in their families and communities that individuals with disabilities can participate in programs such as this and can make a difference in terms of accessibility and accessibility-related issues. Often times campers will embark in conversations with park managers and restaurant owners about how they can make their facility more accessible to people with disabilities. It is very empowering for these young adults to take a trip like this, not only to build their independence in recreational activities such as putting up a tent or cooking their own dinner but also, and perhaps even more importantly, so that they can build their confidence in becoming self-advocates: a skill they can take with them and utilize through their entire adult life.


Another great program to help teach youth advanced leadership skills are Pursuits of Excellence or POE's. POE's focus on teaching leadership not so much through personal travel (like Top It Off) but rather through service to others. Individuals with disabilities often feel they can only be on the receiving end of service, as opposed to the giving end. As mentioned previously, a potential barrier to establishing independence in kids with disabilities is the fact that they are often over-protected and isolated. They often receive the message that they "can't" as opposed to they "can." Bradford Woods aims to teach youth in this program that they can contribute positively to their community and peers.

Over the years, youth who have engaged in POE's engaged in a number of service projects including:
  • cleaning up caves in nearby Bloomington
  • beautifying the river that runs through Martinsville
  • clearing trails at local state parks and recreation areas
  • working with a local eldercare agency to plan and provide activities for residents of the nursing home

All of these programs involve youth going out in small groups for a full 36 hours where, like Top It Off, they learn skills in group dynamics and team building. In the heat of the summer the work is often very challenging and very demanding, yet the rewards are amazing. The participants are often engaged and empowered in ways they have not previously experienced. They learn that they have much to give and always come away extremely proud of their accomplishments - as individuals and as a team.

As mentioned with Top It Off, these programs are very unique and often their success is due in large part not only to the participants but also to the staff who coordinate and facilitate the program. These trips can be very technical in nature involving advanced knowledge of off-site trip protocols, risk management, caving and canoeing expertise, life guarding certification, and wilderness first aid. Again, these programs are jointly staffed by individuals at Bradford Woods who have expertise in all areas from personal care to medication management and off-site trip leading. If off-site programs and staff are utilized (i.e. facilitators at another facility) Bradford Woods insures that these staff are properly trained to lead and/or supervise such activities.

Bradford Woods Camping Programs are accredited by the American Camping Association, voluntarily meeting or exceeding over 250 standards relating to property, facilities, programs, staff, and medical care. If you are interested in sending your young adult on a program like this be sure to check that protocols for off-site trip leading are fully in place:
  • risk management plans
  • agendas and schedules
  • properly trained staff
  • equipment in good repair

If all parameters are in place for a safe program, endeavors such as these can be highly beneficial in teaching young adults the "real life" skills they will need throughout their life! To learn more about programs and services at Bradford Woods visit the Bradford Woods web site at www.bradwoods.org or call (765) 342-2915 (voice or tty).


Newman, Barbara & Newman, Phillip R. Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach. Dorsey Press, New York. 1987. Pages 319-408.

The citation for this article is:

Stone, C.A. Pursuing excellence: how teenage campers gain independence through service and travel. Bloomington, IN: National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University-Bloomington. Retrieved from www.ncaonline.org