Summer programming at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (TN UCEDD, IDDRC, LEND) presents unique opportunities for investigators to design innovative research, for students and professionals to engage in model trainings, and for children and adults with disabilities to learn new skills and to make new friends. This year, the three summer programs drew 63 campers and students and 23 counselors and peers to the Vanderbilt campus. 

During the ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp for adults with Williams syndrome, campers spent a week living on campus together and working and socializing with professionals in the Nashville music business. Songwriters Ross Copperman and Heather Morgan led campers in a songwriting session, creating "Wherever You Go," an original song based on campers' personal experiences and inspirations. They recorded the song at Ocean Way with Copperman and Hunter Hayes, and on Tuesday, June 23, performed with Hayes live on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.

During the Next Steps Summer Institute (NSSI), high school students and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities had an opportunity to experience what life is like at college. They came together for a week-long residential experience to do career exploration, to enhance their communication and life skills, and to socialize and to reflect with peers.  

In SENSE Theatre, campers with and without autism spectrum disorders spent 2 weeks together playing theatre games, singing, and learning their parts for the original stage play, "The Makeover," which campers then performed during the final days of camp.

Discovery at Camp

Investigators involved in SENSE Theatre and in the ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp have incorporated innovative research studies into the design of the camp experience. While participation in the research components is not a requirement of camp, most campers do elect to participate.  

In SENSE Theatre, Blythe Corbett, Ph.D. (Psychiatry), and Scott Blain (Neuroscience undergraduate) conducted a promising study on music memory with the campers with autism spectrum disorder. Across campus at the ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp, 30 campers with Williams syndrome took part in a series of studies. The research focused on gaining a better understanding of the general characteristics of Williams syndrome in an effort to inform the development of support strategies and ultimately to debunk some common myths and misunderstandings about the disorder.

"Half of the campers we worked with this year we have worked with in previous years," said Elizabeth Roof, senior research specialist. "We are able to gain a better understanding of how these campers are changing cognitively and behaviorally over time. We are looking at their general coping skills and at psychiatric features to see what may emerge and also what may fade away as the campers are aging. Some of the newer research we did this year focused on safety practices on the internet, which is something parents have reported is a concern."

Individuals with Williams syndrome are highly social, which can pose potential safety risks, so researchers spent time learning more about their online social engagement and habits. Building upon the "stranger danger" research model conducted at this camp in 2014, investigators used what they learned to present campers with common online scenarios in an effort to train them in engaging safely  online.

Investigators in another study at the ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp continued a line of research exploring whether data support the common claim that people with Williams syndrome have perfect pitch and beat perception. It turns out that some people with Williams syndrome do have perfect pitch and some do not. Some can keep a beat and some cannot. Williams syndrome is not an indicator of skill in this area, as was previously accepted. 

Training Future Generations

Across the summer programs, 28 counselors and peer mentors were trained and put to work. The Next Steps Summer Institute (NSSI) welcomed undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds.

"Three of our counselors came from the clinical psychology program at Vanderbilt and proved to be such valuable resources," said Tammy Day, Next Steps program director. "As graduate students, they, of course, were thoughtful and mature, and with their clinical experiences, they were able to add so much to how we were able to support our students. It was lovely to see how genuinely interested they were in getting to know the students as whole people."

Steven Greiner, a graduate of the Next Steps at Vanderbilt program, returned to campus as a counselor this year.

"It was fantastic to have Steven back and to witness him taking on this new role," said Day. "He was very effective as a role model and as a peer, and the students looked up to him. He has been in their shoes. He attended NSSI, graduated from Next Steps, and is now working at Vanderbilt and living independently. It was great to see him step in as a counselor and provide such a positive example of what is possible for our students."    

Summer Fun and Growth

Amidst the research and professional development, VKC summer programs also are providing fun, creative environments to encourage personal growth in the participants.

Doss is 12 years old and was a first-time and very reluctant camper at SENSE Theatre this year.

"I was nervous before I started," said Doss. "I hadn't ever performed like that and I didn't know anybody. But I really liked the games and learning the songs. Also, I made a lot of new friends who are like me, and we had a lot in common."

Doss's mother, Kelly, drove him to Nashville 60 miles each way, every day. She says it was well worth the time spent on the road.  

 "Doss does not get excited about trying new things," said Kelly. "But after the first day of camp, he was hooked. He wanted to get up early for camp every day and was upset when the weekend rolled around. This was unusual for him, but it was because he made new friends, and he felt accepted. Since camp, he has been very open to new experiences. His self-confidence has grown tremendously, and it was just amazing to see him smiling, dancing, and singing on the stage. It was so nice to see him engaged and happy."

To learn more about the VKC Summer Programs, visit: