Summer Centered: Isabel Russak '23 Creates Fun and Accessible Camp Programming
The psychology major and neuroscience and Spanish double minor is helping neurodivergent children develop social skills as a camp counselor at Apex Summer Camp.
This summer, Isabel Russak ‘23 is helping neurodivergent campers gain self-confidence through fun summer activities. The psychology major is working as a camp counselor for Apex Summer Camp at the University of Washington Autism Center in Seattle. As part of a team of seven undergraduate and graduate students, Russak helps lead daily activities for 14 neurodivergent third and fourth graders. “Each week, we focus on a new social skill—communication, cooperation, validation, participation—and incorporate this teaching into daily conversations, role-playing, board games and activities of our choosing, which can range from water balloon fights to scavenger hunts,” said Russak. “We also focus on a different sport each week rotating through tee-ball, kickball, and dodgeball, my personal favorite!”
The counselors put together agendas that focus on specific behavior goals for their campers, many of whom have struggled to participate in previous educational and social environments. “Children with ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder tend to struggle with motor deficits, which can make playing sports really difficult,” explained Russak. “This can, in turn, affect their social interactions with their peers who might tease them or become frustrated with their lack of coordination or knowledge of the sport. One of the goals of our program is to teach our campers sports skills—in addition to social skills like good sportsmanship—that they can bring with them into the school year.”
Russak, whose internship is supported by the Center for Career and Professional Development’s Gertrude Heller Memorial Fund, first heard about the opportunity through a friend who participated in the program last year. She saw the opportunity as a perfect mix of her two interests: developmental psychology and summer camp. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to work with young kids in a non-traditional clinical setting and gain insight into different professional fields, including applied behavior analysis and early childhood education,” she said.
Her work connects to her previous experience working with neurodiverse children at the Phebe Anna Thorne Kindergarten on campus, as well as her academic work in psychology, educational studies, and disability studies. “My experience this summer has inspired me to get involved with more research through Haverford’s Psychology Department,” said the psychology major and neuroscience and Spanish double minor.
Russak values the connections she builds with her campers. Many of the children have struggled to participate in other summer camps and schools, so the strides they make at Apex are inspiring.
“It’s so rewarding to see kids progress, whether it’s an instance of scoring a homerun in a sport they had never heard of before coming to camp, or watching them make new friends after having struggled with this their whole lives... It’s really inspiring to see them thrive in our program—a welcoming environment that accepts them fully and gives them many chances to grow,” said Russak.
The most challenging part of the job, however, is reprimanding campers for negative behavior and de-escalating tense situations. The point system at Apex assesses the campers’ behavior by awarding points for positive actions and taking away points for negative ones. “It can be really frustrating and hard to take away points from a kid who is having a rough day when all I want to do is comfort them,” she said.
Aside from important laser tag strategies, she has learned a lot about the importance of programming that is accessible and beneficial to all children.
“I’ve learned about the power of behavior modification therapy in kids with behavioral challenges,” said Russak. "I think, most importantly, I’ve learned about the importance of creating programs that support individuals with diverse minds and abilities and the incredible and necessary role that educators play in the lives of individuals and our society.”
Russak hopes the lessons she teaches her campers will help them feel more comfortable in future educational and social environments. “Our hope is that with their newfound understanding of sports skills, they gain self-confidence and can use their new skills to make meaningful social connections with their neurotypical peers!”
“Summer Centered” is a series exploring our students’ campus-supported summer work.