Quest Camp brings summer experience to special needs kids

Quest Camp brings summer experience to special needs kids

Campers enjoy outdoor activities as part of Quest Camp’s blend of therapy with a typical summer camp experience. (Squirrel Hill Psychological Services)
Campers enjoy outdoor activities as part of Quest Camp’s blend of therapy with a typical summer camp experience. (Squirrel Hill Psychological Services)

A typical day camp, with it emphasis on swimming and sports and arts and crafts, can be a blessing for many families looking for a productive way for their children to spend their summers.

But for a child with emotional and social challenges, like ADHD or Asperger’s Syndrome, a typical day camp can just lead to frustration.

“My son (who has Asperger’s Syndrome) had gone to different camps, but never a therapeutic camp,” said Michelle Welker, who moved to Mt. Lebanon a couple of years ago from Columbus, Ohio. “Regular day camps were absolutely challenging; they never worked out. He was overwhelmed. Asperger’s is continually on the rise, but it is new to a lot of people, and many educators are not trained [in handling it].”

But Welker’s son, who is now almost 14, had a completely different experience last summer at Quest Camp, a therapeutic day camp specifically designed for children and teens with emotional and social challenges. The program was brought to Pittsburgh last year through a collaboration with Squirrel Hill Psychological Services (SHPS), a division of Jewish Family & Children’s Service.

“My son has the mind and intellect of a 30-year-old man, the body of a 13-year-old, but socially, he’s kind of stuck at 5 right now,” Welker said. “Pair that with a lot of people who don’t understand Asperger’s that well, and people can end up pretty frustrated with him. And that makes him frustrated. But the people at Quest get it; they understand it.”

The Quest program was begun 24 years ago in California by Dr. Robert Field, a child psychologist with Pittsburgh roots, who found that when working with teenagers, it was often more beneficial for them to work in groups rather than as individuals.

Quest, which has a two-hour a week after-school component following the summer, is geared to children who have only moderate impairments, such as ADHD, high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome, or chronic depression or anxiety, said Jordan Golin, director of SHPS.

“These are kids who, at first glance, look like typical kids,” Golin said, “but they are the kinds of kids who are often on the fringe, who are isolated socially. They are used to having frustrating experiences in these kinds of environments.”

The goal of Quest is to teach the kids social skills in a “structured, therapeutic setting,” he said.

The children are first screened by Quest’s staff to see if they will benefit from the program. Children with ongoing aggressive behaviors are not candidates for Quest.

One unique feature of Quest is its emphasis on constant peer feedback, Golin said.

“Every hour of this program, kids are both giving and receiving feedback in regards to the goals they set up for themselves,” Golin said. “They are learning to accept feedback, and also to give feedback in a way that’s socially acceptable. That’s happening all the time.”

The campers engage in typical camp activities such as drama, swimming and field trips, “but every single activity is analyzed and discussed,” Golin said.

As a camper make progress toward his goal — say, being able to lose a game without throwing a tantrum — he earns points, and those points later can be used to purchase items at a camp store, which is stocked with items the kids have requested, like videos and gift cards.

“It is a cognitive behavioral approach,” Golin said. “On the surface, you would just see a day camp, but there is so much therapeutic activity going on. It’s a very unique approach, and a very holistic approach.”

Quest, which will begin its second summer in Pittsburgh in June, accepts children from 6 to 18 years old. Campers are required to attend a minimum of three consecutive weeks, but have the option of participating in the full seven-week program.

April Artz, the director of Quest, has seen measurable progress in many of her campers.

She recalled one particular young man, who had been sent to Quest by his school district because of behavioral problems prompted by schoolwork that he found too difficult.

“He would become angry, or shut down, to the point that the school didn’t know what to do with him. So he got sent home from school. But that was just reinforcing his behavior,” said Artz.

The staff of Quest worked with him during the summer, and then at the after-school program as well. He is now able to deal with frustration in a more constructive way, according to Artz.

“I think it was the consistency,” she said. “And we never sent him home. We always had the same expectations for him, and the outcomes were always the same. He knew what the expectations were, and he mastered the skill.”

Artz believes that the peer feedback component is a large factor in the success of the program.

“Sometimes kids on the autism spectrum, or with ADHD, or with oppositional/defiant disorder function in a somewhat typical way. Peer approval is huge for them,” she said. “At Quest, they get to find out in a positive way why people turn away from them, why people don’t want to play with them.”

As for Michelle Welker’s son, although he resisted the idea of Quest at the start, he is now fully committed to the camp, as well as the after-school program.

“Last summer, he had a rough start,” Welker said. “But April and the counselors handled it perfectly, they eased him into it. He’ll be going again this summer. He has no intention of stopping.”

Quest Camp will run from June 24 to Aug. 16, and will be held at Community Day School in Squirrel Hill. Group therapy may be reimbursed by health insurance providers, and the program is recognized by some school districts as an Extended School Year program (ESY).

For more information about the Quest Therapeutic Camp program, or to register for the Pittsburgh camp, visit Quest Therapeutic Camps online at or call 800-313-9733.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

read more: