RicStar’s Summer Camp: Looking Beyond Disability

RicStar's Summer Camp: Looking Beyond Disability
“Music therapy is a remarkably therapeutic tool that is used in a wide range of disabilities to help enhance social, physical, emotional, and behavioral skills in those individuals,” says Judy Winter, co-founder of the Eric “RicStar” Winter Music Therapy Camp in East Lansing, Michigan.
Music therapy is a research-based treatment modality with proven efficacy in a variety of populations.  Now in its 10th year, the Eric “RicStar” Winter Music Therapy Camp, also called RicStar’s Camp, has brought hope and positive change to hundreds of individuals and their families.
RicStar’s Camp started in 2003, just a few months after Winter’s son, Eric, passed away.  “Eric was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth and passed away in 2003 at age 12.  But during his life he was identified as having a great gift for music, and we were advised to put him in music therapy classes,” says Winter.  “He was composing music shortly before he died.  So when he passed away we decided to turn $10,000 worth of memorial gifts into beginning something that Eric always wanted, a summer camp where people could play music all day long.”
RicStar’s Camp is a three-day camp experience in music therapy and movement for individuals with disabilities and their siblings.  The “Buddy Up” program pairs campers without disabilities with their peers so they are able to learn from each other.  “We hope that those individuals go back into their communities and use inclusion to model acceptance of differences and people who might not be the same as us,” comments Winter.
The camp also allows anyone to join the camp, no matter their level of ability.  The camp is open to individuals of all disabilities and their siblings.  “We don’t exclude anybody at our camp — everybody is welcome,” Winter explains.  “We take the very youngest to the very oldest.  We open up our doors to people with disabilities and without disabilities.”
The camp draws from around the state of Michigan, a few other surrounding states, and Canada.  Winter says, “We are filling in a need that certainly has not been filled in this way before.”  While the camp is full this year, there is a waiting list, and many other music therapists have expressed interest in starting similar camps in other areas.
What makes RicStars different from other camps?  The use of music therapists, volunteers, one-on-one attention, and enjoyable and therapeutic music activities offers a unique perspective that is honestly not done often.
Groups during the camp include Songwriting, Rock-n-Roll Combo, Silly Sing-Along, Xylophones and Tone Bars, Party Dancing (which “includes people in wheelchairs, so they, too, can do the chicken dance and YMCA at family gatherings and weddings and feel more included,” says Winter), Bean Bag and Parachute Fun, Handchimes and Boomwhackers (an amazing musical toy if you don’t know of them already), Movin’ to the Beat, Percussion Improvisation, Music Listening and Guest Performers, Sound Shapes, Song Stories, and Vocal Group.  Certified therapy dogs also attend camp to provide emotional support.  The entire camp culminates in the Be a Star Showcase, in which all campers get the chance to perform on stage.  Winter says, “That was very important to us because many of these individuals would not have had that opportunity or would not if not for this camp.  It’s wonderful to see the families storm the stage with their videos and cameras, just like other families do when they go to their children’s recitals.”
The amount of attention and care that goes into RicStar’s Camp is another distinguishing factor from other therapy camps.  “We focus on individual ability not disability, which means we look at each person and think about what might need to be modified to make them more successful while they are there,” says Winter.  “Everything is about giving them the opportunity to shine.” 
Many campers return year after year, which gives Winter and the RicStar’s Camp staff the ability to see progress and success stories in their campers.  “One camper, for example, couldn’t walk when she first attended camp.  Yet through camp she was motivated to take part in an activity that required that she stand up, and she did.  And now we see her walking into the camp doors every year.  We have individuals with autism who speak for the first time.  It’s pretty remarkable, and it speaks to the power of music therapy,” comments Winter.
Winter and the RicStar’s Camp staff are supportive of music therapy and its amazing potential, and they are very happy to share what they know.  Last week they received the 2012 Crystal Award from the city of East Lansing for going above and beyond the call of duty for improving quality of life in East Lansing, further proof they know what they’re doing and they’re making a difference.
As RicStar’s Camp has dreams to set up other camps in Michigan (the MSU outreach program in Detroit is first on the list), music therapists in other states are welcome to inquire about how they could begin their own camps.  “We would love to see this in the future as something that could be done in other communities and should be done in other communities.  We are really proud of the fact that we do it really well and that we’ve lasted 10 years.  It’s a popular camp and it’s life-changing for many families and individuals with disabilities,” says Winter.
Winter continues, “The camp is what it is today because we looked beyond disability and we focus upon individual ability.  So much of this population is undervalued, undereducated, undermployed, and undersocialized; we have so many stereotypes.  This population struggles tremendously with the stereotypes that prevent them from having better lives.  We’re all about taking those road blocks away and educating the public while showcasing the value of this population.  Disability impacts so many families, but we oftentimes don’t talk about it.  We try to take the shame out of disability.  We give campers and families a place to go where they are valued, we maximize their potential while they are there and treat them with the respect and dignity.”
Winter also mentions that people come up to the staff at the end of the camp with tears in their eyes and say the camp is the most important part of their year.  “That speaks volumes about what we do and I hope others can learn from our example and provides these kinds of opportunities for this population because they deserve the not only the opportunities but also the recognition,” says Winter.
Visit the Eric “RicStar” Music Therapy Summer Camp website for more information about volunteering or starting a music therapy camp in your community.
Visit Judy Winter at JudyWinter.com and her blog, Winter Ramblings.  You can also purchase her book, Breakthrough Parenting for Children with Special Needs on her site, bookstores, and online retailers.
Photos by Judy Winter and Erik Taylor.  Crystal Award photo courtesy of the City of East Lansing.
April 25, 2012