Camp Review: Part 2 – Camp Woodward – Action Sports Camp for My PANDA?

As promised, I wanted to provide you with additional information about our experience at Camp Woodward now that my PANDA’S week has completed. You can review my initial post about camp prep and Day 1 here:

I’ll admit, Spencer didnt’ make it through the whole week. Homesickness kicked in around Tuesday morning and by Wednesday bedtime, it was just too much for him. You have to remember though, he’s 11, this was his first time away from home with non-family and PANDAS anxiety definitely plays a part in how he responds in any situation. So, net/net, my opinion of Camp Woodward has not changed a bit and I’m sure we’ll be working to ensure that he can go back next year and stay longer!

In my last update, I had dropped him off on Sunday and had received one text (exhilarated) text on Sunday evening. I received a few additional texts on Monday: he loved the scooter instruction he received that morning and had gone out of his way to schedule a session of Go-Kart racing ($6.00) which he really enjoyed. Apparently, he had also signed up for paintball ($10.00) but decided it was a little too intense once he arrived at the paintball field and gifted his opportunity to a friend that was with him. I was perfectly ok with that – it’s up to him to decide what he can handle and what he can’t!

Monday night was the all-camp bonfire. By Tuesday morning, I had heard that the bonfire was GREAT although I hadn’t accounted for the fact that Spencer’s diet won’t accommodate s’mores so he felt a little chumped. When we do it again, I will be sure to provide gluten free graham crackers and dairy/dye-free marshmallows and chocolate so that he can fully participate in that activity.

Speaking of food…Spencer wanted to make sure that I mentioned that all of the food at Camp Woodward was excellent! I had spoken to Jan (who runs the dining hall) prior to our arrival and she assured me that there were plenty of gluten and dairy free options that he could request. He apparently had a lot of success doing so and, actually became friends with JoJo at the Grill (turns out, he’s the GM’s son) because he was spending a lot of time with him requesting specific foods!

Tuesday morning is when things began to take a turn for the worse. His first text to me Tuesday morning indicated that he was feeling homesick. Although he said he slept well, he had apparently been lonely at bedtime and was, again Tuesday morning, missing home. Interestingly, he never once mentioned coming home but just wanted to touchbase and let me know how he was feeling. He embarked on his day of instruction and photos assuring me that he was going to be fine.

About mid-morning, I received another text…apparently his homesickness was getting worse. I told him I’d find someone for him to talk to and called the camp to ask what I should do. I was assured that there was someone who could talk to Spencer immediately and that he would do so, and then call me back. About an hour later, I received a call from Ernie, one of the scooter directors who indicated that he had spoken to Spence, spent some time with him and that he was doing just fine. Unfortunately, having kept up a good show while communicating with my kiddo, I got pretty emotional on the phoe with Ernie…he reassured me that having a homesick can be pretty emotional for a lot of parents. It’s a pretty helpless feeling and I wasn’t the first parent who had cried a bit when talking to him. I left the call with Ernie feeling much better and confident that Spence would make it through the day!

Apparently, the rest of the day went pretty well. Spence finished his instruction for the day and participated in the horseback riding ($32.00) that we had scheduled for him at check-in. He loved that experience and, by evening, was texting me funny comments about having ridden a ‘Charlie horse.’ (His horse’s name was Charlie.) I think exhaustion from all of the activity started to get to him then as I didn’t hear anything else Tuesday night and learned the next day that he had fallen asleep before lights out at 9:45 pm.

Wednesday morning was pretty much the beginning of the end. He woke up homesick and began texting me right away. I suggested that he talk to one of the counselors but had little success in getting him to do that. I encouraged him to have some breakfast and attend instruction and assumed that, as soon as he got busy, he’d be fine. Unfortunately, mid-morning I received a text (he wasn’t supposed to be using his phone but was upset) saying that a kid was giving him a hard time during instruction (running his scooter into Spencer’s legs?) and that he didn’t know what to do and his homesickness was really bad. I wasn’t sure how to help him, so I called the camp again. I spoke to the same woman I had spoken to the day before and she assured me she’d get the homesickness counselor to go see him. She asked if I wanted a return call. Having been very satisfied with how the situation resolved itself the day before, I declined.

At lunch, I received a text from Spencer indicating that ‘Big White’ (whom I would later meet as Matthew…a soft-spoken Scooter Director who looks like the lead singer from FMLAO) had taken care of the situation with the other kid and promised to have dinner and ride with Spencer at 5. I assumed that all would be well at that point. Unfortunately, it appears that, after lunch, the campers have a fair bit of time that is unstructured. While there are TONS of activities that they can sign up for, Spencer forgot that he had registered for a ropes course and spent the afternoon hanging around and occasionally riding the tracks with friends.

Having a lot of unstructured time made homesickness worse for him. By 5pm, I was receiving more urgent texts and crying phone calls (from the cabin bathroom because he didn’t want anyone to see him) telling me how sad and homesick he was. Apparently, a situation had also transpired in the canteen where a kid had tried to make some other kids fall on the stairs and Spencer had pushed him. While the push resolved the situation (the kid knocked it off and went away) my kid is one who is just as traumatized by having to stick up for himself as he is by being bothered by another kid. It only compounded his desire to get away.

Throughout Wednesday evening, I continued to get texts from Spencer. Dinner was over and most campers were at the all-camp Hip Hop Dance Battle. Spencer had wandered down there but wasn’t particularly interested so he had come back to the cabin and was hanging out on the porch alone. His homesickness was incredibly ramped up and I couldn’t get him calmed down. I asked him several times to go find his counselor (Barrett), or Ernie or Big White but he claimed not to be able to find them and continued to get more upset. At the time, I was pretty concerned that he couldn’t find a counselor for a 2-3 hour period but I later learned that Spencer should have gone to the skate office for help! The counselors have assigned duties or off time in the evening but all campers are instructed that they can find a counselor at the skate office at any time. Either Spencer didn’t hear that or he just really wanted to go home because he never mentioned that to me and, as his parent, I was never given that information.

After 3 hours of increasingly escalated texts and phone calls, I decided that enough was enough. He wasn’t happy, it was getting worse and he was starting to make comments like ‘I’m just not sure I can keep doing this!’ I know my kiddo’s limitations and just couldn’t imagine doing 3 more nights of this kind of trauma for him. On Tuesday and early Wednesday, I had hoped that exhaustion and the time of week (newness wearing off but still several days to go) were contributing to the problem and that it would get better. By Wednesday evening, I realized that it wasn’t going to. It was also getting later (9pm) and I knew that it was going to take me 40 minutes to drive to camp. I didn’t want to be moving him out by flashlight in a cabin full of kids who were trying to sleep!

I finally offered to come and pick him up. He initially declined but then called back and took me up on the offer. I told him I needed to call the camp office and let them know. When I called, Rachel asked that I speak to Casey, the homesickness counselor, before coming out. I let Spence know that I would wait for Casey’s call and then head out.

After an hour of not having heard from Casey (as it turns out, he was in charge of dodge ball that night and didn’t get my message) I decided it was time to pull the plug. I called Rachel back and told her I was on my way and instructed Spencer to pack up his stuff. Casey did call me back but, by that time, I was already 15 minutes out from camp.

When I arrived at camp, Casey was waiting for me and had helped Spencer gather all his belongings. Spence was waiting for me in the main office. Rachel suggested that I sign him overnight and let him sleep at the hotel with me…that would give him the opportunity change his mind in the morning if he wished. While I took her up on the offer, Spencer teared up every time we mentioned it so I was pretty sure he wasn’t coming back.

I asked about the absence of a counselor for 2-3 hours that evening and that’s when I learned about the skate office and the availability of counselor there at all times. Rachel pulled Big White into the office to explain the situation to me and he was extremely apologetic about the miscommunication and assured me that he would have helped Spence if he had known he was struggling. Everyone I met was extremely professional, kind and supportive of Spencer.

Spencer and I headed back to the hotel…we didn’t arrive until just before midnight and I had to insist on him showering before bed (he hadn’t showered any of the days he was at camp…apparently not uncommon…and reeked of bug spray!) so we didn’t get to sleep until 12:30 am. Spencer slept over 9 hours (super uncommon for him) and woke up certain that he was done with camp for the year. I was super impressed that Casey called just after Spencer woke just to check on him and find out if he wanted to come back. I also received a call from Richie, the GM’s husband (co-GM?) wanting to check in on Spence and make sure I knew how to receive the photo package that I had paid for. Both guys were incredibly kind and disappointed that Spencer couldn’t stay at camp but assured me that these kinds of things happen. In fact, Casey let me know that one of the current lead counselors at Woodward had only made it to Tuesday on his first trip to camp!

As our day progressed on Thursday, we decided to stay in PA one more day and hang out at the hotel pool and see a movie. I wanted to make sure that Spencer’s trip ended on a high note and that he had positive feelings about Camp Woodward overall. He expressed to me several times during the day that he absolutely LOVED Camp Woodward and was super bummed that the ‘homsickness had gotten’ him.

We drove home Friday morning and, while on the road, received the 16 photos that were part of our photo package ($199…I misstated that they were $250 in my last post.) The pictures were incredible and you could definitely see how much Spencer’s skill at scootering had improved in only 4 days!

Spencer has continued to talk about his experience at Camp Woodward, the friends he made and the things he accomplished. He took on the asphalt pump track and the mega ramp (which looks terrifying to me) with success and learned a lot both about scootering skills and himself! I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything despite the fact that it was dramatic and exhausting for both me and him. I think he had a fantastic learning experience and grew a great deal! I also don’t regret picking him up…it was time to stop the torture…he’s a PANDAS kid and his anxiety was out of control. I don’t think it would have gotten better and I’m not convinced that there was anything I or the counselors could have done to make it work for him at that point. He had done was he was able to do and that was enough.

I learned a few important things as part of the process of taking Spence out of camp early:

1) For campers ages 7-10, Woodward offers 1/2 week camps. At 11, Spencer had aged out of the opportunity but it would probably have been the right fit for him. It also contributed a bit to his distress because some of his friends from the cabin (10-12 year olds) were 10 and left on Wednesday.

2) There is an opportunity for parents to volunteer to be ‘Camp Parents.’ Camp Parents can volunteer to be Camp Mom and Camp Dad to a cabin of 7-9 year olds, drive camp vehicles for camper pick-up, drop off and emergencies, or run the Woodward Canteen. A small portion of camp tuition is reimbursed to parents who chooses to/are chosen for these jobs. Given the way camp went for us this year, I think Spencer will be more ready next year. I also think it might be beneficial for him to have me there. Camp Parents are encouraged not to participate in their children’s activities and are not assigned to their child’s cabin but I still think that my presence would be reassuring to him and might allow him to stay a few extra days next time!

3) I needed to do a better job learning the policies and procedures at camp before drop off/my departure. Had I known about the skate office or the food at evening activities, etc. I would have been better able to guide Spencer when he was struggling. I assumed that Barrett, Spencer’s cabin counselor, would be constantly avaiable to him and his cabinmates unless a substitute counselor was present. That wasn’t the case and my ignorance left Spence in the lurch a couple of times.

4) I did the right thing by choosing to stay nearby for camp this year. I was concerned that Spencer wouldn’t make it all week or would have a medical flare so I didn’t drop him off and head 6 hours home. I camped out in a nearby hotel and was available to go get him when things became intolerable for him. While some might think that my availability (both in proximity and by phone) enabled his fear, I know my kiddo and the ‘dump and run’ just wouldn’t have worked for us. I would have ended up driving 6 hours through the night on Wednesday night. Making the decision to go get him was an extremely difficult one but I trusted my gut and I’m confident that I did the right thing. By pulling him out when I did, I left him with a positive feeling about Woodward and camp in general and I’m confident he won’t hesitate to go back next year!

Overall, I cannot say enough good things about Camp Woodward. The staff was incredibly positive, helpful and supportive and the facilities and programming are top notch! Spencer hasn’t stopped bragging about his accomplishments since we returned. I wouldn’t hesitate to sign any child up for a week of camp at Woodward and, with the right support and information in place, would highly recommend it as a place for a PANDAS kid.

For more information and/or to sign your child up for Camp Woodward, please click the link below:

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