Academics

When Professor Dorothy Hamburg founded the Children’s Instructional Summer Camp at Gallaudet in the 1950s, it was one of the first camps in the world for deaf and hard of hearing children. Flash forward 70 years and it is still going as Camp Discovery! Camp Discovery  remains a crucial option for families looking for summer programs in American Sign Language (ASL), according to camp director Vanessa Arp. This summer, there will be two sessions: July 1-12 (for ages 4-12) and July 15-26 (for ages 4-10).

Arp, an instructor in the Physical Education and Recreation Program, has been running Camp Discovery since it reopened after a two-year closure during the COVID pandemic. The California native, who has a background in exercise science, kinesiology, and education, is a big believer in the power of play to transform lives. “Activity helps promote mental health overall, and teamwork helps us learn things from each other,” she says.

Four children are wearing harnesses and helmets while they scale a rock climbing wall. An adult supervises.
Rock climbing, parachute games, STEM projects, and more keep kids busy at Camp Discovery, which is held on campus every summer.

For children whose first language is ASL, one of those key things to learn is how to improve their communication. “Not many places have camps like this where deaf kids can be with and socialize with their peers,” Arp says. “Just like hearing kids learn English from hearing it, deaf kids learn language from signing.” Being in the camp environment may be overwhelming for some of them at first, as they see so many new things. But participating in fun activities provides interaction opportunities that in turn builds identity. “Camp Discovery helps children become more confident,” she adds.

Days are filled with a variety of activities, including swimming, rock climbing, STEM projects, sports and more, all conducted in ASL and led by staff who are Gallaudet students. There are also several special events, including a field day competition and a closing ceremony that features dance and signed poetry. For this summer, Arp plans to come up with ways to tie in the Olympic Games.

The program draws campers — and their families — from all over the United States. “D.C. is a central place for deaf people and there are great educational resources to support children,” Arp says. In previous summers, families from California, New York, and the Midwest have temporarily relocated in order to send their child to Camp Discovery. For summer 2024, a limited number of Gallaudet dorm rooms have been set aside and will be available at a modest cost for camp families traveling from afar.  “The only negative feedback we get is that the sessions are not long enough,” Arp adds.

Two years ago, Arp had the opportunity to work closely with a family from Puerto Rico that was looking to support their adopted daughter who has cognitive delays. The girl had a breakdown when she arrived and wanted to leave. But she soon grew comfortable and more communicative. “I learned some Puerto Rican signs and taught her ASL, and from then on, we used each other’s signs,” Arp says. “When she saw me, she signed, ‘friend.’” The experience helped the child and her parents learn how to address her needs.

Arp takes great pride in the impact the camp has had over the decades, and she is looking forward to this summer and many more. Limited scholarships are available for families with financial need. Additionally, donations to fund these scholarships as well as to help purchase supplies is greatly appreciated. For more details and to register, click here.

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