The Therapeutic Benefits of Camp Starfish

Program Background

Especially created for children with social, emotional, behavioral, and learning challenges, the Starfish program provides an extensively structured, nurturing and predictable environment, coupled with an atmosphere of continuous positive reinforcement, skill development and both physical and emotional safety. Camp Starfish is a place where every camper is working to build their personal inventory of skills, and every child is “special,” so no one feels singled out when extra attention is provided – that’s just everyday camp!  

A daily Starfish Tool (our values and concepts for success that staff actively model and teach daily, and which campers learn to utilize, such as “I use my words to express my needs and feelings”) and Starfish Key (social skills such as “I accept no for an answer” and “I introduce myself to others”) are each incorporated into all activities, bunk chats, and camper goals. These, in addition to the opportunity to access even greater than one-to-one support when necessary, provides the basic building blocks of a successful camp experience for campers to whom “typical” summer programming is out of reach. Many children who have come to camp generally quickly come to recognize Starfish as a place where they are safe, where they can have a tremendous amount of fun by remaining within some basic limits, and where adults and other children care.  

While there are plenty of adults around to assist campers with specific goals, managing emotions, interacting appropriately with peers, and participating safely, there are also plenty of other peers to help campers enjoy their summer in a safe, fun, and friendly atmosphere. While swimming, boating, exploring nature, playing sports, and participating in arts, dance, music, and more, campers often make their first real friend, and then are able to practice maintaining that connection and developing that relationship both at and after camp. Daily “Free Play” periods allow even our youngest campers, along with a staff buddy, to make and follow through on choosing activity options, and as campers grow, multiple additional levels of choice and practice with decision making become part of their program as well. Additionally, six varying levels of teen programming focused around leadership, adventure trips, and increasing work responsibilities become available to our campers ages 14+. 

1:1 Staff-to-Camper Ratio 

Camp Starfish is unique in many ways, one of which is the fact that we provide a one-to-one staff-to-camper ratio with very small camper units (approximately 4-6 campers with 5-7 direct-care or “frontline” staff, whom our children know as their “counselors.”) With a maximum of 54 overnight campers at any time, and approximately 100+ staff, Starfish is able to ensure that all campers receive individualized attention proactively and additional assistance whenever needed. Bunk counselors, each of whom also teach in an activity area on camp or lead a camper group, participate in a pre-camp training program which includes over 130 hours of skills-focused learning in the areas of child development, providing behavioral and emotional support, managing escalation and crisis behaviors, helping children develop their social and therapeutic coping skills, setting up a structured program, and many other topics. In addition to the 1:1 ratio provided by out counselors, an additional supervisory and leadership team of 23 administrators, who come from a diverse background including fields of employment and study such as education, psychology and social work, complete a pre-summer 16-week course and receive an additional two weeks of training each summer to further build their skills in the areas of behavior management, goal setting and individualized camper contract plans, skills development, and how to best set up campers for success. Four year-round directors are on site all summer to complete the support network set in place for our campers and their families. 

Program Goals

Although each child’s program at Starfish is individualized and each child works on independent goals, our programs have a set of overarching goals that guide our activity offerings, program development and daily camp life. At a glance, these goals are:

  1. Build self-confidence, self-awareness and self-esteem.
  2. Decrease self-imposed limits and try new things.
  3. Utilize individual daily living skills and develop healthy living habits.
  4. Cultivate a “winners’ attitude.”
  5. Develop the ability to make good choices, formulate independent decisions and take responsibility for actions.
  6. Develop new and augment current coping techniques that allow for increased emotional, social and behavioral coherence.
  7. Expand appreciation for the outdoors, including physical activity and natural surroundings.
  8. Enhance social competence and expand the desire for social interaction.
  9. Show respect for the diversity of others and a desire to protect others from bullying or harassment.
  10. Facilitate cooperation by working as a team and interacting positively in a community setting.

Each of these goals has related objectives that clarify the growth that we hope to see campers developing as they work on aspects of these goals. As an example, for Goal 8, “enhance social competence and expand the desire for social interaction,” related outcomes include: 

  1. Campers will be able to name at least two other campers with whom they have spent quality time interacting, and
  2. Campers will be able to verbalize to a staff member or parent the interests of two campers that are both similar to, and different from, their own (identifying four interests in total).

Individual Goals

By the time campers arrive at camp, our year-round staff and directors have already received a great deal of background information about goals campers are working on at home, in school, in therapy, and in various other areas. Using this information and with input from guardians, counselors help each child work towards a set of individualized goals during the session. Of these goals, one usually surrounds a Starfish Tool, and one a Starfish Key.  Campers are encouraged to work toward goals that are challenging, yet achievable with consistent effort.

Every day, campers go over their goals individually with a cabin counselor. Together, they discuss efforts and specific examples made during the day towards goals, and agree on what number of points should be awarded. Campers can also earn an extra point for participating respectfully in the conversation. Each goal chart of 3 goals includes a reward for its completion. Rewards are never food or prizes – rather, they take the form of special activities. In this way, campers see a powerful and tangible connection between effort and reward.  Bunk groups also set goals (such as “get four 10’s on inspection this week”) to receive bunk rewards – like a canoe trip to Blueberry Island or a late evening game of flashlight tag.

Evidence of Success 

Starfish is a different kind of summer program. We focus on the needs of each camper and meet them where they are, then help them get where they need to be. We teach children how to interact appropriately in a social group, play cooperatively on a team, and resolve conflicts verbally and peacefully. Campers also work on individual goals, all while being active outdoors, exploring their talents and interests and having fun.  We’re proud to receive frequent feedback that campers are returning home having made great strides. For many children, Starfish is the first place where they can truly succeed, where they feel comfortable and cared for, and where they make their first real friend.

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Photo of Danielle Lubbers

Danielle Lubbers

Danielle joined Camp Starfish in the spring of 2023 as Camp Director. Originally working with the Girl Scouts of the Chesapeake Bay, Danielle has ten years of experience providing programming to children, outdoor skills training for adults, and directing overnight summer camp experiences.

In her spare time, Danielle enjoys spending time with her two-year old Dalmatian, Mia. Danielle’s favorite activity at camp is raft building, as she enjoys seeing campers and staff work together to complete a team goal. Her favorite Camp Starfish Tool is “We are here to learn, grow, and have fun!”

Staff photo of David

David Mahnken

David Mahnken is Camp Starfish’s Mental Health Consultant. He provides staff training each summer on topics such as self-care, trauma-informed care practices, and health & wellness. David also provides support and consultation to the organization throughout the year. David holds a BA from St. Olaf College and an MSW from Simmons University. David is a LICSW who works in emergency services in addition to his own private practice in Massachusetts.

Prior to becoming a social worker, David’s first experience at camp was as a counselor in the early 2000s before becoming an administrator and member of the year-round team. His favorite camp activity is swim-I (swim instruction), and his favorite Camp Starfish Tool is: “We make camp a safe place.”

Staff photo of Joe

Joe Clark

As the Assistant Director at Camp Starfish, Joe is a seasoned professional who is well-versed in all aspects of camp life. With five years of summer work at Starfish, he brings extensive experience and expertise to the camp year-round. Joe is from the UK, and holds a degree from Keele University. Joe works as a support worker in the UK, providing care to individuals with disabilities, since 2019. Joe also engages in volunteer work, including spending three months in Abrobiano, Ghana.

Joe is known at camp for his charming English accent, which campers often try to replicate! His favorite camp activity is playing soccer (football) on the field, and his favorite Camp Starfish Tool is: “I take responsibility for my actions.”

Staff photo of Rachel

Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts is the Director of Staff Experience at Camp Starfish, responsible for all things staffing and groups. With a degree in Anthropology, and a Certificate in Global Citizenship from Franklin Pierce University, Rachel brings a unique perspective to her role. She oversees hiring, onboarding, retention, and staff appreciation for the 100+ seasonal staff at Camp Starfish each summer. Rachel has been a part of the Starfish team since 2016, working in various seasonal roles. She joined the Year-Round Team full-time in 2022.

As a lifelong New Hampshire resident, Rachel enjoys hiking in the woods with her dog, Clover. Her favorite camp activity is Free Play, and her favorite Camp Starfish Tool is: “We respect each other’s differences.”

Staff photo of Kristie

Kristie Martin

Kristie Martin is Camp Starfish’s Program Director, responsible for ensuring that each camper receives a structured, supportive, and fun program during both summer and year-round weekends. With her degree in Applied Psychology & Human Development from the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, Kristie has a deep understanding of child development and uses this knowledge to create a nurturing environment for all campers.

Kristie grew up in the Monadnock region and takes pride in being a local. Kristie’s favorite camp activity is the Camper Talent Show, which she believes is the perfect opportunity for campers to showcase their skills and feel comfortable sharing with the community. Her favorite Camp Starfish Tool is, “I try my best, I do not have to be the best.”

Staff photo of Sarah

Sarah York

Sarah York is the Director of Operations at Camp Starfish, joining the team in the Spring of 2022. She brings with her a wealth of professional experience working in both mental health and human resources. Sarah’s role at Camp Starfish is crucial in ensuring that camp runs smoothly, and she is available to assist families every step of the way through the registration process. If you call the Starfish office, Sarah will likely be who you speak with first!

With her dedication to helping others and her commitment to creating a positive camp experience for every child, it’s no wonder that her favorite Camp Starfish Tool is: “We are members of a team.”

Staff photo of Jamie

Jamie Mahnken

Jamie Mahnken is Camp Starfish’s Executive Director, and has been an integral part of the Camp Starfish community since 2010, serving in a variety of roles. With a degree in Business Administration and Organizational Leadership from Southern New Hampshire University, Jamie is committed to creating a safe and positive environment for every camper, staff member, and volunteer.

As a North Carolina native, Jamie enjoys spending time outdoors with her family. Her favorite camp activity is kayaking to Blueberry Island, which is a meaningful and memorable experience for many campers, as well. Jamie’s favorite Camp Starfish Tool is: “I am flexible and open to change.”