Posted On: June 30, 2020
As Starkloff Disability Institute’s Director of Disability Studies Steve Foelsch described to the 19 students who gathered for week one of DREAM BIG Career Camp 2020, we didn’t go from painting on cave walls to putting a man on the moon overnight.
“Humans have a unique ability to learn from each other. We all can’t be experts in everything,” Steve explained to the group. “We need to communicate with other people and ask them ‘What do you know?’ ‘What was your experience?’ And that’s what gets us to the moon.”
DREAM BIG Career Camp offers a unique opportunity for high school students with disabilities to not only learn from each other, but also gain valuable insights from leading experts in disability advocacy and education. In addition, each day of camp features a visit to one of SDI’s corporate partners, inclusive-minded employers who introduce students to the exciting world of careers available to them if they are willing to work hard and “dream big.”
Of course, due to the ongoing pandemic, all career camp site visits and classroom sessions have transitioned to a virtual environment, taking place on videoconferencing platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Despite not having the option of gathering in person, career camp enrollment has increased dramatically for 2020, with over half of the total applications coming in after program staff announced the switch to a virtual format.
According to Blair Dammerman, Youth Services Manager at SDI, by remaining flexible and determined, DREAM BIG has been able to step up and fill a void during this difficult time.
“I think that a lot of the excitement from families came from the fact that a lot of recreational camps and summer programs in the area were just straight-up canceled,” Blair explains. “By holding career camp virtually, students still have something productive, educational and informative to participate in.”
As always, the contributions from SDI’s many corporate partners helped ensure a memorable experience for DREAM BIG participants. According to DREAM BIG Camp Coordinator Danielle Giuffrida, the smooth transition to virtual camp was made possible by the proactive, can-do spirit of SDI’s partner companies.
“A lot of our companies came to us early on and wanted to know the game plan,” Danielle recalls. “They were extremely enthusiastic about finding creative ways to offer meaningful, hands-on experiences for our students in a virtual setting.”
Boeing kicked things off June 1 with a virtual factory tour, employee Q & A and a virtual activity. Morning sessions followed a similar format throughout the rest of the week. Other presenting companies included the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Bayer, Cigna, Riot Games and Wells Fargo.
Tim Boeker has coordinated Bayer’s involvement with DREAM BIG since its inception in 2018. He says career camp is a highly anticipated event on Bayer’s calendar.
“For us, it’s always one of our favorite days of the year because we get to interact with students and tell them a little about what we do at Bayer,” Tim remarks. “We love helping them dream big about careers in science, technology, agriculture and many other fields.”
Afternoon discussions and activities center around topics like self-advocacy, disability pride, college readiness and job searching. While this subject matter doesn’t elicit the same outward enthusiasm as a science experiment or computer game demonstration, Danielle tries to impress upon students its importance to their long-term success.
“I hope that they learn from the afternoon sessions how to become more assertive self-advocates,” Danielle says. “Their futures are in their hands, and they can do whatever they set their minds to. They just need to leverage these tools and resources they’ve acquired in order to lead fulfilling, independent lives.”
As impactful as the lesson content was, fatigue inevitably began to set in at times, a fact that was not lost on Blair. “I think the virtual day might have gotten a little long for some of our students. I know it was long for us,” she admits. By the end of the day, it gets pretty exhausting being in front of the camera for six hours.”
At moments when attention seems to drift and energy lulls, camp counselors Olivia Apollo, Ben Crowner and Gavin Barrett-Hayes are there to reinvigorate the discussion. College Outreach Coordinator Katie Fields, who has worked with all three of the counselors through their participation in Access U, takes pride in watching them embrace their roles.
“When motivation is low and students are a little weary to engage, our counselors do a great job of getting them to refocus,” Katie explains. “The counselors ask questions and sort of nudge students back toward the topic. They are great at breaking the ice so our students feel more comfortable.”
A goal of DREAM BIG is always to offer an educational experience students can’t get in the traditional classroom setting. Alison Lowe is the mother of Jordan Moore, a camp participant on the autism spectrum. She says DREAM BIG gives him a glimpse into a future he didn’t know he had.
“Each day I asked him what they talked about. He tells me about being introduced to these different companies and finding out about roles within these companies that he never knew existed,” Alison shares. “And then to hear they might be willing to hire him or other kids who might have different abilities … I think he was just really excited to know that some of these places might be a good fit for him.”
Although the coronavirus situation necessitated a rather unorthodox approach to this year’s camp, Blair can’t argue with the initial results.
“I am beyond pleased with how week one went,” Blair states. “Those of us in youth programs, along with the entire SDI staff, worked very hard to get it off the ground, and I couldn’t have asked for a better first week of virtual DREAM BIG.”