A transformative internship: shaping inclusive, accessible summer camps
Cassidy O'Reilly's summer co-op placement with a municipal summer camp re-affirmed her passion for creating more inclusive experiences for all children - and helped her uncover her true leadership potential.
When the time came to select an internship before beginning the final year of her degree, O'Reilly didn't have to look far. She knew she wanted to apply the community engagement and risk mitigation strategies she had learned from her coursework and independent study projects at Sheridan to her longstanding work supporting her local children and youth programming, and help make summer recreation programs more inclusive for all children.
O'Reilly took on a summer internship with a local municipal summer camp from July to August 2021, serving as location coordinator for a summer camp for children ages 6-12 in her neighbourhood. The internship presented her most challenging leadership role yet: providing direction, mentorship, and day-to-day behavioural management and conflict resolution support to a team of young counsellors who ran craft, music and sports activities for the children every day.
Several of the participating children in each camp group were neurodiverse - some living with autism spectrum disorder, Asperger's, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This called O'Reilly to draw on her leadership skills and on the strategies learned from her studies.
"This past semester, I learned a lot about how to mitigate risks when it comes to programming for youth, and strategies to make the experience more accessible and inclusive for everyone," she explains.
Together with her team of counsellors, O'Reilly had to consider whether the summer camp activities were inclusive to all participants, and how they might be adjusted to accommodate needs of children from different cultures and with different abilities. Throughout her internship, O'Reilly advised her staff how to adjust the activities to help all children participate. She guided them on how to facilitate transitions between activities and reduce triggers for neurodiverse children, using strategies like including visual representation of programmed activities, positive reinforcement, and using a clock or stopwatch for countdowns. She also helped her team address specific behavioural concerns in partnership with the children's caregivers; and supported them as they built relationships with each of the participants.
For O'Reilly, these meaningful steps to help all children feel engaged and supported at camp were particularly critical, as many of the participants had been in isolation for more than a year due to the pandemic.
"Many of these children had stayed at home or interacted with only a small bubble of people for so long," she explains. "At the beginning, it was hard to get them to open up. It was so important to provide them an opportunity to be heard and seen within our program, and even help them play a role in the program planning."
She worked hard to help her staff follow the best practices for play set out in Park and Recreation Ontario's HIGH FIVE model - the national quality standard for leisure and recreation programs.
O'Reilly, a Community and Justice Services alumna and fourth-year Honours Bachelor of Community Safety student, is deeply committed to supporting marginalized community members and working in partnership with them to help foster their success - a foundational focus of both her programs at Sheridan.
She was drawn to community engagement work throughout her studies and previous professional experience. She is particularly passionate about keeping young people safe, engaged, and supported regardless of their backgrounds or abilities. "Role models are crucial for children and youth as they are so impressionable, and being able to provide positive mentorship and guidance is extremely rewarding," says O'Reilly. Her studies empowered her to further explore how her previous skills and previous experience as a youth programming leader could be applied to other communities and demographics.
While the summer internship was not O'Reilly's first leadership experience, she counts it among one of her most challenging - and personally rewarding. Weeks before the camp was set to begin, she was re-located to a new facility and charged with training and preparing a brand-new team of staff, many of whom did not have her depth of experience.
"I had to overcome these challenges incredibly quickly, and that experience brought out mentorship abilities I didn't even know I had," says O'Reilly. "It was unexpected but very enriching - and it showed me the type of leader I have the potential to be."
Now in the fourth year of her Bachelor of Community Safety degree, O'Reilly is applying the knowledge she's gained from her program - and her summer internship - by dedicating her final individual research project to strategies for accessible, anti-oppressive, inclusive education. After graduation, she plans to continue exploring her potential in different community support roles in new municipalities.
She looks back on her summer internship as a pivotal point in her journey to becoming a community service leader. "I am now certain of my skill sets and my ability to take on a leadership role in this meaningful area of work," she says. "My internship provided me with the confidence to be career-ready and begin the next chapter of my professional journey."
Learn more about Cooperative Education at Sheridan: https://www.sheridancollege.ca/student-life/student-services/co-op
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