By Dijon Rolle, USAG Baden-Wuerttemberg Public AffairsAugust 19, 2010
HEIDELBERG, Germany- Caroline Daniels is involved in a friendly foosball match with her opponent, 11-year-old Seth Holovacko, inside the Lion's Den in Heidelberg.
Daniels is a respite care provider and volunteer at this year's Exceptional Family Member Program Camp, which began Monday and runs through Friday.
Seth is one of the children attending the camp, and Daniels gently coaches him as the two take turns attempting to hit the tiny white soccer ball trapped inside.
For Daniels this simple game of foosball could be classified as a monumental moment in Seth's young life. Seth is autistic and cannot communicate verbally.
Instead he uses sign language and carries a necklace with a small flipbook filled with words and phrases, to communicate with the world around him.
On Monday, the first day of the camp, Daniels and volunteers worked to help children like Seth come out of their shells and learn to socialize in a safe and nurturing environment.
"It's so important to have this day to just figure each other out," Daniels said. "The kids have to get to know each other, and we have to figure out the kids and see what kind of needs they may have."
"For special needs kids, it can be very hard to make friends and to build friendships," she added. "Some of them have trouble socializing, and they have to learn how to play and how to interact."
Brightly-colored building blocks, bouncy balls, board games like Candy Land, books, hula hoops and bubble wands were also a few of the other items that helped to break the ice among the young campers and staff.
Daniels specializes in working with autistic children, and this is her second year volunteering at the camp. She says one of the main reasons she does it is out of gratitude.
"I have four kids myself, and they're all healthy. I'm just so blessed my kids are healthy and I wanted to give something back to the families that were not so fortunate," she said.
"It gives me a lot because you see the kids, when they have a smile, it's because they're happy, and it's because you changed something in their lives," Daniels added.
Elsewhere Linda Phillips, another volunteer and retired pediatric nurse, sat patiently on a stool at the craft table as three young Picassos painted her face in shades of bright pink, brown and green.
The Indiana native says she missed working with children and decided to become a volunteer a few months ago after seeing an advertisement in the library.
"It's great, it's like when they first come in they're very shy and they don't really want to interact, but pretty soon the parents leave, and the next thing you know, they're helping you to put games together and playing games with you and talking to you, and that's wonderful," Phillips said.
Yet as much as Phillips and Daniels recognize the benefits of the camp for special needs children, they're also mindful of its importance to their parents.
"Moms and dads can have a day without worrying about 'where is my child right now,' or 'are they receiving the right attention'' They know their child is in good hands and playing with other kids, and they get a break," Daniels said.
Children can be classified under special needs for a variety of different issues such as having a learning disability, speech impediment, autism or allergies.
"I think it's important because when families have special needs kids they can require a lot of emotional and physical demands on the family, and they need some time to just kind of regroup," Phillips added.
During this year's camp the children took field trips to Mannheim's Luisenpark and Technoseum and the Heidelberg Zoo and put together a journal detailing their experiences.
"It makes me feel great. It's a career for me, and I feel like I'm on top of the world because I know I am doing my job and the kids are having fun," Daniels said. "It's a big accomplishment for me, and it makes me happy to see them happy."
Kaiserslautern's EFMP camp also is being held this week, and Mannheim's was held Aug. 10-13.