I was pleased to learn that the theme for a sophomore class Shabbaton at a Modern Orthodox High School is "Stand By Me--A Thought and Heart-Provoking Exploration of REALationships.”
A very thoughtful, young woman shared her “take” on this topic. While she and five of her classmates, who were also asked to speak on the topic, were initially unclear on what, exactly, a “REALationship” is, this mature sixteen year old began to understand that it is a special, perhaps unexpected, relationship that she had been part of.
She shared her talk with me since I am the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England. Our overnight program for campers with developmental disabilities celebrates its 40th Anniversary this year. We are very proud to be pioneers and leaders in the field of Jewish camping, and in the inclusion of campers with special needs in the camp community. Our Tikvah campers, and the members of our Tochnit Avodah (vocational training program) have always been full members of the camp community, but they have lived in their own bunks.
Seven years ago, we decided to grow with the times and “push the envelope” We created an INCLUSION PROGRAM for campers too young for our Tikvah Program, for campers with more mild impairments, and for those whose parents preferred a more inclusive approach.
The young woman writes, “A child with special needs was put in a bunk of campers like you and me. Children with Down Syndrome, Asperger Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, and other developmental disabilities joined typical bunks and spent their summer partaking in the same activities as other campers.
“Three summers ago, ‘R,’, a camper with Downs Syndrome, joined my bunk. At first, my group of friends and I hated it. We had extra responsibilities now. We had to help R. put on her pajamas, get into her bathing suit, brush her teeth, and pour herself water. These burdens were annoying. Why did we want to waste our time helping someone who probably didn’t even realize we were helping her? R was always stubborn and seemed to need our help for every single thing. It appeared that everyone was having a miserable summer, simply because she was in our bunk.
“While these extra responsibilities were annoying and slowed us down, by the end of the summer, each camper in my bunk had formed a special REALationship with R. We began to enjoy playing sports with her, seeing her accomplishments, such as climbing to the top of the rock climbing wall, as well as surprising her with a party on her birthday. This entire experience showed us that it is not easy to go out of your way to help someone, yet once you do, the result can be something you never expected that it would be.
“Over the year, my bunkmates and I continued to reach out to R. Many of us invited her to our Bat-Mitzvahs, we wrote her letters through snail mail, and we even planned conference calls with each other before Shabbat, so we could all sing the pre-Shabbat songs, just like we do at camp.
“The following summer, many of my friends and I signed up for a special buddy program, where we got paired up with a special needs camper, who we did various activities with, like playing sports with during our free time. This past summer, we all signed up again, and were assigned to new buddies, who we swam with and built sand castles with during their swimming period. Since I have been on a swim team for many years, I did not expect any of the kids to be as good as me. Surprisingly, I raced one camper and was shocked when he almost beat me!
“One can form a special REALationship with anyone. In my case, my friends and I were able to form REALationships with particular campers, simply by holding their hand and running with them to first base while playing kickball, helping to glue newspaper onto a paper mache balloon that would become a globe, writing a letter to their parents to tell them about their field trip, or singing and dancing with them in the dining hall after dinner. This summer, I am looking forward to being a CIT and strengthening my REALationships with some of the same campers I worked with in past years.
“By partaking in these special REALationships, one can learn that when someone has a disability, that means they also have an ability. Over the years at camp, I have learned that children with disabilities really do have the abilities to express themselves and enjoy the camp experience. Even if you do not keep in touch with these campers, you can still have a REALationship, because you have made a difference in their lives.
“My Shul has held a Yachad Shabbaton one Shabbat for the past few years. I have noticed that the Yachad members are not the only ones who enjoy these experiences. The members of my Shul also look forward to this weekend, and everyone takes something away from the experience. I hope that in camps and Shuls around us, we can take advantage of opportunities like the ones I have had, like at the Yachad Shabbaton coming up in a few weeks.”
The program certainly has its challenges, but the benefits to the typically developing campers, the campers with special needs, and to the entire camp community, are amazing.
We hope our attempts at inclusion at Camp Ramah in New England (and throughout the Ramah Camping Movement) will inspire others in the Jewish World to follow our lead and in turn, inspire others. Please share your inclusion successes and challenges so we can all help each other!
This article on inclusion in the Jewish world deals with special needs in the Jewish community.
Read some articles I’ve written about Tikvah.