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UNF camp challenges kids to see similarities with inclusion program

UNF partners with special education school for summer camp

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Parents looking for a way to entertain the kids this summer might want to check out a local camp that will give them a unique experience. 

The University of North Florida's Youth Sports & Fitness Camp has partnered with the North Florida School of Special Education for a program that includes students with intellectual disabilities.

The special education school brought in staff members to help with training and counseling. And the number of kids with special needs enrolled in UNF's summer camps has doubled since the partnership began.

The program aims to show the kids at the camp that they are more alike than different.

“It's an opportunity for them not to be afraid, not to feel like they're different and to understand they like the same things,” said Debrah Rains, assistant head of school for North Florida School of Special Education. “Camp is a common ground."

Ben Brown, 10, who is attending the summer camp, uses sign language to better communicate with people. Watching him interact with other kids at the camp, you might not realize he has Down syndrome, because he does everything the other kids do, such as playing, swimming and climbing.

News4Jax spotted Ben making a mad dash Thursday to avoid getting tagged during a game.

Ben's father, Bert Brown, said reverse inclusion creates a learning experience for the typical and special needs kids alike.

"The typical kids that are here in camp get to see what it's like to hang out with a child with special needs, and they get to see that kids with intellectual and developmental differences aren't all that different from them,” Brown said.

Ben boarded a canoe Thursday along with some new friends -- an activity many people assume he might not be able to do alone.

"People think that there's more challenges than there really are when you're working with a child with an intellectual or developmental difference, so it's a little frustrating as a parent,” Brown explained.

Camp director Daryel Gullett said that to his staff, children with special needs are “just kids.”

“We treat them as normal kids, and we love them and care for them like we do our other campers, and we're blessed and proud to have them with us,” Gullett said.

UNF's youth camps are arranged on a week-by-week basis for children 5 to 14 years of age. They still have spots open for the remainder of the summer. To register or find more information, go to https://www.unf.edu/recwell/camps/.