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Exploring the Camp Avanti Model: Intensive Sensory Integrative Treatment and Mentorship

by Jaymie Stavdal, MS, OTR/L  

Developed by Patricia Wilbarger (M.Ed., OTR/L, FAOTA) in 1983, Camp Avanti is an intensive program for children ages 6 to 15 who have learning disabilities and/or sensory processing  differences provided in a camp setting. The Avanti model holistically blends occupational  performance in a natural environment with sensory integrative (SI) intervention, allowing children to develop competence across their occupational roles as camper, team member, and  friend. Camp Avanti also offers a rigorous mentorship program that allows therapists to be immersed in camp culture, living with and learning from leading professionals in SI practice.  

Sensory Integration in the Life Context: The Avanti Model  

Sensory integration is the organization of sensation for use in adaptive functioning within one’s  environment (Ayres, 1972). If a child has difficulty processing information from their body and from the environment efficiently and effectively, as well as organizing this information for functional use, the child’s ability to function within their physical and social environments may be impacted. Occupational therapists using a sensory integrative approach use intervention to provide opportunities to enhance the processing and organization of sensory inputs to produce an adaptive response, with the goal of optimizing the client’s ability to function in their life  environments and occupations.  

The Avanti Model is a holistic model for SI treatment provided in the context of  childhood occupations and a natural environment. The unique combination of treatment, the  camping environment, and therapeutically designed activities make Camp Avanti a powerful tool  to enhance a child’s social, emotional, and physical development.  

Structure of Camp:  

Campers engage in a 6-day, 5-night sleep-away experience located at a camp in the wilderness  adjacent to a scenic freshwater lake. The campers are broken up into 6 to 7 cabin groups, based on age and gender, consisting of 6 campers and 2-3 trained counselors. Each day, campers participate in structured camp activities therapeutically designed to enhance the occupational roles of children. There is a strong focus on play, as play is the foundation for the practice and development of a child’s occupational roles. Camp activities include therapeutic horseback riding, climbing/ropes courses, swimming and canoeing, crafts, and field games. In addition, each day campers engage in 45 minutes of individualized SI  therapy in a specially designed motor room (called the Wonderlab) equipped with suspended equipment, dynamic surfaces, and climbing structures. Activities in the Wonderlab are designed and facilitated by the staff occupational therapy practitioners, with each camper working 1 on 1 with a therapist. Fun fact: The Wonderlab got its name from a camper who each day “wondered” what the new motor room would look like since each day the lab is transformed to continually challenge campers.   Daily tasks also promote a balance of work and play, as campers are responsible for their own activities of daily living, as well as group tasks including meal preparation, serving, and cleanup and cabin cleanliness.  

Each cabin is assigned two occupational therapy practitioners who are responsible for the therapeutic programming for each camper in that cabin. The structure of the camp provides around the clock opportunities for intervention, from activities of daily living in the morning to mealtime preparation and feeding to sleep-wake cycles, which maximizes the power of intensity to change the nervous system. Individualized and specialized intervention strategies are infused into the day to support each camper’s successful participation in the camp experience. These strategies include individualized sensory diets incorporating vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile inputs, the Wilbarger Therapressure protocol, sound therapies, craniosacral therapy,  Kinesio® taping, and oral motor strategies, all provided within the context of connection,  relationship, and felt safety. In addition to these tools, all therapists and staff are responsible for providing acceptance of each camper’s unique qualities, acknowledging their strengths and talents, and providing opportunities to set them up for success.  

The changes that are made over the course of the week are unique to each camper, as the camp  experience meets each child where they are at and supports their individual goals and  development. Camp provides an emotionally, physically, and spiritually safe place for campers,  which helps to facilitate self-regulation, optimal attending, and task follow through, in addition  to improving development of sensory-motor foundations and motor skills. Increased confidence,  developing friendships, independence in daily activities, and willingness to try something new  and take risks are common changes seen among campers over the course of the week. 

Exciting Changes in 2024:

After all that the pandemic brought about, there are some exciting changes coming in 2024. Camp Avanti will be shifting locations and has partnered with True Friends Camp Courage, located in Maple Lake, MN. We are excited to have appointed a new co-director - Angie Schoeppach. She will partner with current director, Kris Worrell, and we look forward to their leadership. This year, camp will be held over the week of July 4th, however, the plan for years to come is to shift the week of camp off of July 4th.  Head to for more information about camp 2024!

Occupational Therapy Practitioners  at Camp Avanti:  

Occupational therapy practitioners from around the world, each with their own set of unique skills and experiences, volunteer their time to work camp. For one week each year, they commit to fully focus their time and energy on practice and learning with camaraderie provided by others who have made that same commitment. The occupational therapy practitioners working at camp take on many roles throughout the week. In the cabin, the role of therapist blends with the roles of family member, nurturer, protector, resource, and role model, depending on the situation. Practitioners also take on the role of professional learner, in that they are constantly working collaboratively with each other for joint evaluation and treatment planning. Each practitioner brings a wealth of knowledge and tools to camp and therefore learning and growth come through teaching and being taught by colleagues, all at different points in their therapy journeys. Practitioners tend to leave camp with an experience that often shifts the way they view traditional therapy, re-entering their workplace with a fresh mindset emphasizing flexibility, collaboration, and creativity. 

Practicum Program:  

Each year, accepted practitioners who are new to camp participate in the practicum program, which allows them to be immersed in the camp culture, learning and experiencing the Avanti  model. Practicum therapists receive daily lectures from experts in the field of sensory integration, totaling 15-20 hours over the course of the week. In past years, lecturers have  included Patricia Wilbarger, Julia Wilbarger , Patricia Oetter, Eileen Richter, Nancy Lawton-Shirley,  Irene Ingram, and Genevieve Jereb, among others. Practicum therapists are also placed with a cabin family, where they learn from hands-on experience working side by side with experienced Avanti therapists. They hone their skills in developing individualized sensory motor programs, as well as how to collaboratively infuse these strategies into the natural routines of the campers in order to allow successful participation in the camp experience, as well as  growth in meaningful and functional occupations (Erhardt, 2014). The unique professional growth that takes place at Camp Avanti, as well as experiencing the profound progress that the children can make in a matter of days (Kinnealey, Koenig, & Eichelberger, 1999), can give therapists a new therapeutic mindset emphasizing teamwork, flexibility, and creativity.  

Therapist Experiences:  

“Starting at Camp Avanti was one of the best decisions I have ever made as a pediatric occupational therapist! While my dad laughed at me because I was “paying to work,” what happened was the start of understanding sensory integrative processing and the power of relationship, many hours of mentorship with brilliant clinicians, meeting an incredible group of humans that I am grateful to call friends…but most importantly, being able to witness and walking alongside remarkable kids expanding their spirit and strengthening their sense of self.” - Gretchen

“Professionally, the course was rich with information. I was surrounded by people who  were truly welcoming to me. The key element that I took from Camp Avanti was the level  of dedication and passion the other members of staff had. Being part of a team brimming  with enthusiasm and excitement was contagious; I took that buzz of energy back into my  practice and still maintain that up until now. I fully understand why so many therapists  return back to the camp year after year.” - Rachel

“It’s hard work, but so rewarding. I love it when kids put down the electronics and become one with nature. We all have fun and play again. The campers teach me so much that no other continuing education would.” - Julie   

“Camp Avanti is where creatively, intuition, connection, and clinical reasoning come together to support kiddos! I come back every year for inspiration, innovative ideas, and fulfilling my OT soul. The Avanti spirit is evident beyond just the week of camp. I have made amazing friends and mentors that I stay connected with all year long. The Avanti camp model addresses kiddos needs, therapists’ learning needs, and the heart of it all!” - Catie  

Avanti Therapeutic Projects Continuing Education:  

Patricia Wilbarger created Avanti Therapeutic Projects as an umbrella organization that includes not only Camp Avanti, but also a wider space to support other projects. A founding value of Avanti Therapeutic Projects is promoting the advancement of the field of  pediatric occupational therapy by providing spaces for practitioners to come together, learn from and with another, develop new ideas and ways to approach therapy, and push the boundaries to promote healing and growth. Historically, Camp Avanti would host a Pre-Camp Conference before the start of camp each year as a continuing education opportunity for Avanti therapists and the broader OT community, as well as a biannual Avanti Summit for Avanti therapists to come together to share and collaborate on new ideas. Avanti is continuing to pursue avenues to support this founding value of continuing education and promoting the advancement of the field of OT.  

What’s Next: Accepting the Torch  

In 1980 Eileen Richter (former co-director of Camp Avanti) founded  Professional Development Programs (PDP) and began an annual PDP Symposium, a 4-day  continuing education event that brought leading experts in occupational therapy to the Minnesota  community and eventually to thousands across the United States. The PDP Symposium  celebrated 30 years of successful educational programming when Eileen sold the company in  2009. Eileen then founded Richter Active Integration Resources (RAIR) and from 2014-2018,  the symposium continued as the RAIR Symposium, annually providing a variety of education  topics focused on empowering therapists to improve their clinical reasoning and intervention  strategies. The PDP and RAIR Symposia became a trusted source of annual professional  development courses and a valuable networking event.  

In 2018, Eileen announced her retirement and the end of the RAIR Symposium. With grace and  the just-right timing, Heather Schmidt, Avanti therapist and owner of Integrative Therapy in  MN, launched Integrative Education with the intention to carry on the legacy of the symposium.  Eileen and Heather partnered for the inaugural 2019 Integrative Education Symposium, which  took place in person in the Minneapolis area. The Integrative Education Symposium was held in  person again in 2020 and then virtually from 2021-2024 as a 2 or 3 day event offering innovative  and quality professional development courses from experts including Kim Barthel, Kelly Mahler,  Shelley Mannell, Leah Kuypers, Patti Oettter, and Michelle Emanuel to name a few.  

In 2024, Heather made the announcement that Integrative Education would be  closing. With both Eileen’s and Heather’s blessing, Avanti Therapeutic Projects will be accepting  the torch and continuing the legacy of the symposium beginning in 2025. Taking on the responsibility of carrying on the symposium tradition fits beautifully with the Avanti mission of providing a space for advanced clinical reasoning and learning opportunities for pediatric therapists around the world. Stay tuned for the Avanti Symposium 2025! 

Written by Jaymie Stavdal, MS, OTR/L  

Jaymie has been an Avanti therapist since 2013 and serving on the Camp Avanti Board of Directors since  2015. She has held the President and Secretary positions in the past. She currently works in the Boston  area consulting with schools, running trauma-sensitive groups in collaboration with mental health  therapists, conducting trainings for parents and teachers, and working with clients in the clinic, home, and  school settings.  

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