Special Needs Camps in the Bay Area

When 13-year-old Quinton Schultz was diagnosed with epilepsy three years ago, his life turned upside down. He never thought he would feel normal again. On top of finding out what it’s like to live with a chronic disease, he was teased at school because of his seizures. It was difficult to explain to other kids what he was going through.

Within a month of being diagnosed, his mother Laurie signed him up for Camp Coelho offered through the Epilepsy Foundation’s Northern California chapter. She had attended the camp as a child with her brother who had seizures, and it was a very positive experience.

It turned out to be very uplifting for Quinton as well.

“When I first got diagnosed, I thought all was lost and I wasn’t a normal kid anymore,” says Schultz, who lives with his family in Oakley. “When I went to the camp, I found out there are a lot of kids like me who have epilepsy.”

Camp Coelho is one of many camps that help children dealing with challenges. Whether it’s a chronic illness like epilepsy, developmental or learning disabilities, or a traumatic event like the death of a parent, these special camps are sometimes the closest thing kids have to experiencing a normal childhood. Many of these camps offer scholarships or payment plans so that kids who have a real need aren’t turned away due to finances.

Located in Occidental just outside of Santa Rosa, Camp Coelho is a week-long residential summer camp for kids ages 9 to 17 who have epilepsy. It offers many different activities including swimming, canoeing, hiking, beach trips, crafts and campfire activities. There are doctors and nurses on staff who specialize in epilepsy. They accommodate special diets and make sure kids receive any needed medications.

Quinton, who has been attending the camp every year since he was diagnosed, developed an interest in photography after a counselor showed him some techniques. He also met a lot friends that he sees outside of camp, including a girlfriend.

“He has had such an amazing time there and he came back a happier kid,” says his mother. “He’s feeling more confident. He doesn’t get offended any more when people ask about his condition.”

For many of the kids at Camp Coelho, it’s a growing experience, says Tracie Ramsey, event manager of the Epilepsy Foundation of Northern California.

“It helps the kids mature. A lot of them haven’t been away from home without parents because of their seizures,” she says. “A lot of them haven’t made any friends because they haven’t met anyone like them. Other kids can be cruel. For a lot of these kids, it changes their life.”

Because the camp has a limited amount of space, there’s a waiting list. Ramsey says they are hoping someday to be able to accept more kids. About 50 percent of the campers receive a scholarship.

Karen Valentine of Marin rarely goes anywhere without her son Levi, 11, who has seizures regularly because they can’t find the right medications for his condition. They’ve tried a list of different drugs, cannabis oil and a special diet, but he still has seizures about every 20 days.

“We were so nervous the first time he went to camp,” his mother says. “It took a lot prep time because he’s on a special diet. We met people who were exactly the same as us. …But when he (Levi) arrived, he felt like he didn’t need us. You want your child to be independent and when they get that feeling of independence it’s priceless.”

What Levi loved most was feeling normal and bonding with other kids who have epilepsy, Valentine says.

Plus, it gave the adults in his life needed time together. “It’s the only time my husband and I got to do something as a couple,” Valentine says. “People living with chronic illness need these opportunities. They need ways to feel good about themselves.”

Hope for Grieving Children

In 2000, Lynn Hebert’s husband died. They had two sons; her 5-year-old was having a very difficult time dealing with his dad’s death. She brought him to a camp in Wisconsin for grieving children.

When she picked him up from the camp, he was very excited.

“He said, ‘Mommy I’m not the only one who doesn’t have a dad,’” Hebert recalls.

That was the moment when she decided to start Camp Hope.

“There weren’t many camps like that here. I thought: I’m a teacher, I can do this,” Hebert says.

With the help of her sister-in-law Leslie Wilson, she opened the camp in 2003 and now both of her sons are counselors there. Located in Livermore, the camp is held twice a year on weekends in spring and fall for kids ages 6 to 17 who have lost someone close to them.

It is free for campers, but donations are always helpful to help run the camp.

Most of the campers have lost a mother or father, Hebert says. At first, they usually don’t want to be there, but after a short time of being around the other campers, they realize they’re not the only ones in their situation.

A physician is available at the camp to answer questions about why a camper’s loved one died. Often, kids are confused by death,  so having a doctor answer questions can help, Hebert explains.

One powerful activity is making a “Memory Box.” Campers usually write a note to their loved one and the kids are given an opportunity to talk to the other campers about their Memory Box.

“They talk to each other in groups and a lot of times, they just sit and cry,” Hebert says. “After awhile, they feel very comfortable with the other kids.”

Other activities include music therapy, swimming, rock wall climbing, riding a zip line, hiking and a candle light vigil.

“We do a lot of things that they may not be getting from home because the parents are usually grieving too,” she says.

Camp for All

For some kids with learning and developmental disabilities, finding the right camp can be challenging. Some camps aren’t able to deal with behavioral problems, special diets and medications.

At Via West in Cupertino, the mission is to make camp available to kids of all learning abilities. Throughout the year, there are weekend camps with different themes. During the summer, the camp offers three- to seven-day sessions.

“What makes it special is everyone can come here and feel special,” says Irshad Fardan, director of Via West. “We want to give everyone the opportunity to experience camp.”

There’s a program for ages 5 to 22 and a program for ages 18 and up. The holiday-themed programs are the most popular, Fardan says.

For example, during the winter session, they bring in snow so the campers can have snow ball fights and play on sleds. Camps also have activities such as arts and crafts, hiking, drama, dancing, yoga, living skills and field trips.

Located on Stevens Canyon Road in Cupertino, the camp offers 24-hour nursing support, counselors, a health center and chefs to accommodate special diets.

For some of the higher functioning campers, there are travel camps to places like Yosemite, Universal Studios and Santa Cruz.

Bethany of San Jose, who prefers to not use her last name, has a son with autism. She started sending him to Via West camps when he was 5 and has had nothing but positive experiences.

Now 7, her son has obsessive behavior and needs to always carry fans and radios around. She says the counselors are always willing to work with his needs.

Via West also helps her and other families in need with scholarships or other payment plans.

“It’s an amazing thing for families,” Bethany says. “I get a break. I get to sleep. I’m really limited in life because of my child and they really help me out.”

Families also don’t have to worry about their child being judged harshly because of her or his disability. “Whatever their issues are in day-to-day life, it isn’t an issue there,” she says. “They get to be free, and it’s beautiful.”

Teresa Mills-Faraudo is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent and mother of two.

Special Needs Camps


Camp Sunburst This week-long residential summer camp helps children with HIV/AIDS and their families enjoy being around others without the social stigma and isolation associated with the disease. 916-440-0889. .


Camp Superstuff Asthma Camp Breath California offers a week-long day camp in San Jose for children ages 6-12 who have asthma. 916-440-0889. 


Camp HopeThis free weekend-long camp in Livermore is for children ages 6 to 17 who have lost a significant loved one. It provides a safe environment for grieving kids and teens to share memories, make new friends and have fun. info@camphopeca.com

Today’s Youth MatterThis week-long, residential camp provides a transformational experience tailored for urban youth, immersing them in a community of adults who foster each camper’s spiritual, character and leadership growth. 408-719-9125.

Blindness & Visually Impaired

The Lighthouse Despite extensive damage from wild fires to its family and sleep-away camps in Napa, it is still planning to offer these camps to blind, visually impaired, deaf-blind and multi-disabled children. It needs donations to rebuild Enchanted Hills Camp. 415-431-1481. info@lighthouse-sf.org.


Camp Kesem Children affected by a parent’s cancer get the opportunity to just be kids in fun week-long, residential summer camp activities. There are locations around the Bay Area, including Stanford University, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz.

Camp Okizu Offers camps for families affected by childhood cancer in the outdoor setting of Berry Creek. 415-382-9083. 

Crohn’s Disease

Camp Oasis This residential camp program at Mountain Center in Southern California enriches the lives of children living with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis by providing a safe and supportive camp community. 

Developmental & Learning Disabilities

Camp Krem It serves children and adults who have Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism or other developmental disabilities in a traditional, residential camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There’s also an Outdoor Adventure camp and travel programs. 831-338-3210.

Camp Paivaka Ability First offers overnight summer programs for children and adults with disabilities in the San Bernardino National Forest. 626-396-1010; toll free: 877-768-4600.

Camp Ronald McDonald This camp at Eagle Lake is a fully-accessible residential summer camp for children with a variety of special needs, economic hardship and/or emotional, developmental or physical disabilities. 916-734-4230. .

Pacific Autism Center for Education (PACE)The center sometimes offers activity camps for children with autism. 408-551-0312.

Quest Therapeutic Camp This day camp in Danville is for children with behavior, emotional and social difficulties. 925-743-1370.

The Sensation Nation -- The Sensation Nation Summer Sports Camps in San Jose offer opportunities to children with special needs to participate in week-long day camps. 866-292-5290.

Via Services It provides year-round camping experiences for boys and girls with social cognitive challenges including verbal and nonverbal learning disabilities, ADHD, Asperger syndrome and autism. 408-243-7861. 


Diabetic Youth FoundationIt offers camps in the Bay Area and High Sierra for children with diabetes and their families throughout the year. 925-680-4994. 


Coelho Epilepsy Youth Summer Camp For one week, children ages 9-17 with epilepsy get to enjoy the outdoors and meet friends at a residential camp located in Occidental. Physicians and nurses who specialize in epilepsy are at the camp around the clock. 800-632-3532, 510-922-8687. camp@epilepsynorcal.org. .


Camp HemotionThis is a week-long residential summer camp for youth ages 7-20 who are living with bleeding disorders, are known carriers and their siblings. It’s at Camp Oakhurst in Coarsegold. 510-658-3324.

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