Ravin Mitchell’s face lit up when she saw Homewood Middle School classmate Blaine Mayo at Camp Terrific New Technology (TNT), a summer camp for children who have difficulty speaking.

Ravin Mitchell learns how to use a computer with the help of UAB student and Camp TNT Counselor Erin Reaves.

Mitchell ran up to Mayo, slid her arm around him and said hello.

Mayo, responding through his Voice Output Communication Aid (VOCA), looked up at Mitchell with a big smile as he said, “Get out of my face.”

The comment made Mitchell — not to mention everyone else in the room — laugh. It also showed the power of technology and the impact it can have on children who have difficulty speaking.

The Camp TNT pilot program, held in June at United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Birmingham, featured a variety of technologies that enable children who have physical or cognitive problems communicating to improve their access to communication technologies and develop a social network.

“Giving a child a way to talk and communicate is a life-altering opportunity for them,” says Betty Nelson, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Education and camp coordinator. “The ability to communicate changes whether or not these children will be able to be employed or even the supported-living facility they can qualify to live in.

“We’re trying to establish a communication system and help the schools these children attend know what to do to help the children advance.”

Flexibility in learning
Camp TNT held three separate four-day long sessions for children in grades K-5, 6-8 and 9-12 from June 9-26. More than 40 UAB students majoring in special education assessed each camper’s needs and disabilities to determine which technologies would enhance their camp experience and their daily lives. These included talking books, communication boards and voice output systems, MP3 players, touch screens, talking pedometers, virtual reality technology and other devices.

Facebook and MySpace pages were a focus for the high-school campers. Webkins was the popular choice of communication for the elementary school-age children, and middle-school students like Mayo enjoyed playing the Wii gaming system.

“The camp’s strength is that it is designed with the flexibility to fit every child that walks in the door,” Nelson says. “The technology is age-appropriate and has a multi-dimensional point of contact for the children. When they come in and they’re able to engage in these activities, they want to be here.”

Students aid in success
Tim Mayo says his son proves that statement to true.

Cerebral palsy confines Blaine to a wheel chair and has robbed him of his voice, requiring him to use the VOCA to speak. He has been to Europe for six months for surgery and therapies and to Atlanta for a three-month visit with the Centre for Adapted Group and Individual Exercise. Tim Mayo says Camp TNT surpassed the other places they have been.

“After his first day at camp I asked him if he was ready to go back the next day and he said yes, and that’s big,” Tim Mayo says. “We’ve been to other camps and situations that were not put together like this at all. It looks like they’ve addressed every possible physical level, which is important. And they’ve got something for every child depending on what their needs are. That’s unusual from what I’ve seen.

“I’m impressed with the amount of staff for each individual child, the technology they are using and the organization. The way this camp is put together is amazing.”

Nelson says a big key to the success of the camp was her students. The students teaching in Camp TNT were doing so as part of their course work for two courses: Characteristics of Children/Youth with Physical, Health, Sensory & Communicative Disorders and Instructional and Assistive Technology.

Students in the Characteristics class were required to create a talking-book project in PowerPoint with their camper that the child would then take back to their classroom this fall. The book would re-introduce the child to their classmates as a way of developing peer bonds and fostering an understanding of their disability.

“It’s really a book about them for the non-disabled peer populations to read with the purpose of  breaking down those questions and fears that block social interaction and bonding,” Nelson says.

UAB students in the Instructional and Assistive Technology class worked with the children on communication. The students from the two classes worked in pairs as teammates with one camper during the week, giving the camp a 2:1 teacher to student ratio.

“I would feel comfortable saying our students have the strongest assistive-technology preparation of any students in special education in our state,” Nelson says. “My students are phenomenal. I have nothing but the utmost praise and respect for all of them. They came to this camp ready to make a contribution and be a part of this.”

Others who were significantly involved in the success of the camp included Holli Ford, camp coordinator, who holds a master’s degree in Early Childhood Special Education from UAB and teaches in the Vestavia system, and three graduate students in the Collaborative Teacher Education Program at UAB: Bernetta  Smith, who will be teaching in Jefferson County and was the computer lab coordinator; Gayl Clutton, who has worked in the Mountain Brook system and helped develop the talking-book projects; and Elizabeth Stewart, who teaches in the Homewood system and explored communication technologies with each student. Brian Geiger, Ed.D., professor of education in Human Studies, also had three graduate students in Health Education participate in the program and coordinated program involvement with four students from the School of Nursing.

What’s next?
Camp TNT came together in the spring after Nelson, Boyd Rogan, Ed.D., director of the Regional Inservice Center, and Gary Edwards, executive director of UCP, began sharing some of their dreams for things they could do to aid area children and their families.

“We thought there was a way to make all of these dreams come together,” Nelson says.

The camp was constructed through donations from area businesses, and the cost for a child to attend the camp was $150. “The donations are what enabled us to give every child a talking pedometer, an MP3 player, and a flash drive with all of their work, reports on their progress and their talking book for their class next year,” Nelson says. “All of those resources went home.”

Nelson hopes to expand Camp TNT next year. Her dream is for each camp participant to bring a non-disabled peer with them to help bridge the gap and break down barriers in their classrooms. She also wants to look at creating similar camps for the aging population and children who are in Children’s Hospital that miss significant time in the classroom due to illness.

“Cures are on the way for children with health issues,” Nelson says. “UAB is a leader in health science research. To me you always educate the children to plan to live. We want to take terrific new technologies to as many children that need it as we can.”

Contact Nelson at benelson@uab.edu to learn more about Camp TNT.