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Student volunteers help make Aphasia Camp a success

RELEASED: Sept. 28, 2010

Attendees of Camp Aphasia with a UW-Eau Claire student

Bob Wilken, Minneapolis, Julie Tangwell, Rice Lake, and UW-Eau Claire graduate student Dani Buker play a game during Aphasia Camp. (contributed photo)

EAU CLAIRE —For years Barbara Strohm has been searching for a place where she and her husband — who has aphasia due to a brain injury suffered 11 years ago — could feel connected and comfortable.

Strohm, from La Crosse, found what she was looking for this fall during a weekend camp in northern Wisconsin that included support from 18 University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students, several faculty members and others from Eau Claire area organizations.

"During the past 11 years I have kept trying to form in my mind the type of community we might move to that might meet more of the needs of our altered lives," Strohm said in a letter to Dr. Jerry Hoepner, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders at UW-Eau Claire and one of the Aphasia Camp leaders. "We lived in that community for a weekend at Aphasia Camp, where your creativity, energy, determination and drive were as evident as the pine trees and the lake."

Aphasia, which typically occurs after a stroke or a head injury, affects a person's ability to express and understand verbal and written language. Treatment often involves speech therapy that focuses on relearning and practicing language skills and using alternative or supplementary communication methods.

Aphasia Camp, held at the Eau Claire YMCA's Camp Manitou near New Auburn, provides people with aphasia opportunities to practice their communication skills in a supportive setting, said Hoepner, who coordinates the camp with Mary Beth Clark from Luther Hospital in Eau Claire. One of the first camps of its kind, Aphasia Camp attracts participants from throughout the United States and Canada, he said, noting that the camp is in its seventh year.

UW-Eau Claire student volunteers are critical to the camp's success, Hoepner said.

The students — communication sciences and disorders majors and graduate students — work closely with the 25 campers as they participate in activities such as fishing, hiking, boating, woodworking, art, dance, photography, yoga, adaptive golf, music and adaptive archery.

"Student volunteers have been credited often with helping to facilitate what we refer to as 'the atmosphere of delight' — it's like creating 'a kid in the candy store, everything at your fingertips' mentality," Hoepner said. "Students help campers to feel comfortable, safe and supported, which enables them to try things they would not have otherwise attempted. When campers attempt these things and are successful, they are often empowered to try them when they return to their home communities. One gentleman got the courage to start hunting again and has joined a group of disabled hunters, another has started to remodel his home and goes to the home improvement store independently, and another has spoken to over 400 community members about what aphasia is. These outcomes are what camp is all about."

Many people don't understand how important communication is until it is taken away from them, said student volunteer Amber Siverling, a graduate student from Bloomer. While serving as communication partners, students support and encourage communication throughout the weekend, said Siverling, who has volunteered at the camp the last four years.

"The volunteers make connections with the campers and make sure everyone is having fun," Siverling said, noting that it's especially rewarding to reconnect with campers from past years. "The camp has helped many campers slowly return back to the life they once had. During a golf outing last year, one lady told me she used to golf but didn't think she could anymore after being diagnosed with aphasia. She told me this year that she bought golf clubs and golfed regularly this summer. This is a great example of how much difference some support and confidence can make in someone's life."

Senior Allie Kishaba, a communication science and disorders major from Eau Claire, said she was she amazed at the transformation of several campers she interacted with during her first camp experience. She noticed one woman who had struggled early in camp was soon glowing with pride as she painted one afternoon, and an older gentleman who had spent much of the weekend in a wheelchair ran the bases during a camp softball game, she said of camp highlights.

"It just goes to show that people can be very motivated if you get them doing something they love to do," Kishaba said. "In the case of this one man, it was baseball, something he probably missed doing and was once very good at. Seeing him running around those bases is an image I won't forget."

While the focus is on the campers, the students also benefit greatly from the experience, Hoepner said. Among the lessons he hopes they learn is that the easy path for delivering services is not necessarily the more effective path, he said.

"In speech-language pathology, use of workbook, cookie cutter approaches lead to less fulfilling and useful outcomes for individuals," Hoepner said. "When students adapt an approach, which holds to the standard of doing the very best thing, the outcomes are more positive. Accepting that this might not be the easiest pathway is critical and knowing that it is worth it is an advantage of having this experience."

Immersing students in a multi-day camp where they interact with people with aphasia and their families help them better understand the population they will serve, Hoepner said.

"Seeing someone come to the clinic twice a week for an hour doesn't enable a clinician to see what it's like for the individual or their spouse/other partners to live with aphasia," Hoepner said. "Being immersed with campers all day through activities, they are exposed to emotional, physical and social elements that they would miss in a clinical setting. It's those settings that matter to the individual with aphasia and their families — not the two hours of clinic per week — the other 4,920 minutes in a week. This camp gives students insight into living with a disorder."

Siverling said the camp has taught her the value of making connections with her clients.

"It's taught me how important it is to build rapport and get to know the clients on a personal level," Siverling said. "When a clinician can better understand those they are serving, the treatment process will be much more effective."

Students often volunteer at the camp multiple years, an indication that they find the experience meaningful, Hoepner said, adding that some people have continued to volunteer even though they've since graduated from UW-Eau Claire.

"After coming to camp my first year, I had to come back again," said Emily Solberg, a senior from Eau Claire who hopes to be a speech-language pathologist. "It is truly a life changing experience. As students, we meet so many amazing people and their families. They have made a huge difference in my life and I can only hope to do the same for them. After coming to camp, the area of aphasia, brain injury and rehab has really sparked my interest in the field."

For Piper Doering — a senior art & design and communication sciences and disorders major from Eau Claire — the camp allowed her to use skills from both her majors.

"Camp was the perfect opportunity to combine my two interests toward something both meaningful and fulfilling," Doering said. "It's wonderful that this camp seems to prove that all activities, being artistic or not, can provide opportunities for growth and enlightenment."

Doering said she was nervous at the start of camp, particularly after the first camper she met indicated that he was unhappy to be there because he was still struggling to accept that he had aphasia. As she and the man got to know each other, Doering introduced him to a new communication technique, which he quickly began using.

"I noticed his outlook really started evolving," Doering said of the camper. "He seemed to become more confident within his social interactions and activities. When the weekend was coming to a close, he thanked me for my support and said he planned to return next summer. Hearing him say that meant the world to me. It was wonderful to know I had been a positive influence on his life, at least for a weekend."

As they talked, the man asked Doering about her studies and her plans for her future.

"He encouraged me to keep going and told me I could be successful as long as I keep doing what I'm doing," Doering said. "What I enjoyed most about this interaction was it was now his turn to give me the encouragement and advice I needed."

In addition to the student volunteers, several faculty and staff members also have spent time at the camp. Dr. Katherine Schneider, senior psychologist emerita, was the keynote speaker at this year's camp. Barbara Shafer, a lecturer of art & design, and Dr. Marquell Johnson, assistant professor of kinesiology, were among the camp instructors.

For details about UW-Eau Claire's involvement in the Aphasia Camp, contact Dr. Jerry Hoepner, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders, at or 715-836-3980.



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