Friendships & Activities

How A Specialized ADHD/LD Camp Helped Alex

A father shares how one special camp helped his son, and countless others with ADHD, learn important lessons — without lectures.

Boy with helmet and climbing gear getting ready to traverse obstacle course at ADHD Summer Camp
Boy with helmet and climbing gear getting ready to traverse obstacle course at ADHD Summer Camp

(Visit SOAR’S Web site for more information on their award winning summer program.)

For many kids, two words summarize the sweetest childhood memories: summer camp. Not so for my son Alex. Until recently, all he remembered about camp was getting in trouble. Though we carefully primed his counselors with strategies for working with our son’s subtle disability, parental tips did not prevent the disappointments that marred his camp experience. Alex was ready to give up, and so were we.

Then Mom heard about SOAR (Success Oriented Achievement Realized), a wilderness adventure program designed for kids with attention deficits and learning disabilities. Staffed by counselors trained in both wilderness skills and psychology, SOAR camp is a hybrid of Outward Bound and inward bound; kids face external challenges while learning more about their inner selves.

SOAR founder Jonathan Jones struggled with his own learning disabilities as a child. The camp was born of his personal backwoods experience: Nature challenged him without keeping score, he says, and the wilderness provided enduring “lessons without lectures.” As a teacher, he dreamt of using that experience to help others.

Nestled in a 12-acre thicket of balsam and tulip poplars near the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, a cluster of wooden cabins now serves as base camp for many others’ childhood dreams come true: Dreams of backpacking, mountain climbing, whitewater rafting and, perhaps most important, the dream of “fitting in.” That’s the dream that eluded my son. Alex has a bold, colorful personality and requires a little extra guidance, but not coddling. As Mom read the SOAR brochure aloud, the part about a fortnight of mountaineering accompanied by a South American llama that suddenly got Alex’s attention. But the part about “helping children develop self confidence, social skills and problem-solving techniques” is what appealed to Mom and Dad.

John Willson runs learning disabilities and ADHD services at SOAR. He’s an enthusiastic outdoorsman with a degree in experiential education who speaks with the passion of a man set to change the world. Willson, who has ADHD himself, has served the power of the nature in nurturing equation. To educate kids, Willson explains, you have to get their attention first.

“I’ve never seen a kid unfocused rappelling off a cliff,” Willson says, referring to the progressive rock climbing course offered at SOAR. “Our kids stay focused because wilderness activities are always exciting and novel.” Once he’s got a kid’s attention, he uses strategies for working constructively with their ADD behaviors. Activities such as rock climbing teach kids about advanced planning, problem solving and goal-setting skills that are as useful in school as they are in the woods.

During the two weeks that Alex went to SOAR, he didn’t take his medication. Even so, the behaviors that had put off counselors at other camps did not surprise the trained staff at SOAR. They know how to work with ADD behaviors intelligently. “We never punish these kids for being impulsive,” explains Willson. “It serves no purpose; it’s like punishing a kid with a speech impairment every time he stutters. There are only two approaches we use with impulsive behavior: Ignore it or redirect it.”

SOAR’s 20-year success story demonstrates that outdoor adventures combined with social skills training works. The program has grown from serving eight children to a facility catering to nearly 500, with 33 different courses from backpacking the Appalachian Trail to scuba diving off the Florida Keys.