CAMP: Living and Learning Togetherby Natalie Jacobs October 31, 2013
By Natalie Jacobs
A few months ago, the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) completed preliminary research on special needs programs at Jewish overnight camps. The research showed that slightly more than one-third of the camps surveyed offer special programs for campers with disabilities, and more than 50 percent noted that they were interested in developing such programs in the future.
While many camps are only recently seeing an increased desire for such programing, Camp Ramah, a Conservative camp in Ojai, Calif., pioneered accommodations for special needs campers back in 1993 when it launched its Tikvah program, which provides three types of programming for special needs campers.
“We accept kids of all different types of abilities,” Elana Naftalin Kelman, Ramah’s Tikvah program coordinator and a former Ramah camper, says. “Anything from children on the autism spectrum to children with Down syndrome to children with cerebral palsy, we accept all different types of kids. We have some kids who are quite high-functioning who really just need us to support them through specific times of the day, and we have some students who have one-on-one shadows.”
General population campers can number up to 400 at any given time, but Tikvah programs offer a unique opportunity for smaller groups of special needs children to be involved in a key aspect of Jewish life in a way that isn’t typically accessible to them.
“I think one of the things that makes us really unique in terms of how we deal with kids with special needs at Camp Ramah,” Kelman says, “is that we really offer so many opportunities for kids who have a variety of needs.”
Camp Ohr Lanu falls under the Tikvah program and is a place for children with specials needs ages 4-14 to attend with their families “for a retreat of study, prayer, respite, support and fun.” Last year, Camp Ohr Lanu hosted 20 families.
For individual campers, the largest part of the Tikvah program is Amitzim, the youth division, serving campers ages 10-17. Amitzim welcomed 60 campers across two four-week sessions last year.
Ezra, a vocational program for campers ages 17-23, hosted 30 kids last year.
Campers in each of these programs participate in all of the activities that other campers do, everything from the ropes course to swimming and dancing, with some modifications made on an individual basis if necessary. Kelman says it’s like a camp within a camp, where specialized support is available but mainstreaming is a high priority.
Like many camps, Ramah encourages campers to get involved as counselors. Their Mador program is a nine-week leadership training program for incoming 12th graders to work both in the field as counselors and in the classroom during special sessions throughout camp. Last summer, two leaders-in-training worked with Tikvah’s Amitzim division for one month.
Elianna De Quesada and Marcia Seidle were Tikvah’s first student counselors. The women, both seniors at San Diego’s Canyon Crest Academy, had previous experience working with children with special needs through the Friendship Circle, a local nonprofit that pairs teens with special needs children for weekly play dates.
“I mentioned that when I was applying [to the Mador program],” De Quesada says of her volunteer work with Friendship Circle, “but I didn’t think it was an option for first years to [work in the Tikvah program]. Around the time when they were starting to let people know that they were going to be counselors, they called me and [asked if I wanted to be part of the Tikvah program]. I freaked out, I immediately said yes, I was just so happy.”
De Quesada, who attended Camp Ramah for six years before becoming a counselor, says her counselors made such a difference in her life that she wanted to be able to do that for the campers who came after her. Adding the extra layer of being a counselor to children with special needs was something she embraced wholeheartedly, but it was definitely different than her work with Friendship Circle.
“When I go see my buddies at Friendship Circle, we hang out for like an hour or two and play a game or go outside or something pretty casual. But [Tikvah] was a lot more involvement. … It was different at first and I quickly realized I couldn’t be like ‘oh, we’re just hanging out,’ I had to be a counselor.”
Each counselor was responsible for one bunk of five girls, living with the campers for one month. So while De Quesada and Seidle had experience spending time and doing fun activities with special needs children, camp presented another set of challenges.
“Camp is your home for a whole month,” De Quesada explains. “It’s a commitment to live there. That was hard for a lot of the campers so there was a lot of homesickness. But they coped with it really well. It was just the first few nights.”
There is constant involvement and a level of intimacy that is reached between counselors and campers of all types. So sensitivity to that was key.
“Living together,” De Quesada continues, “I think that is mainly what brought us closer. Knowing that you are living and doing your daily routine in the same environment brings you closer together with anyone.”
Seidle, who attended camp for seven years prior to participating in the Mador program, was similarly enthusiastic about being chosen to participate as a Tikvah counselor and the experience affected her in many ways.
“I learned a lot,” Seidle explains. “I learned that I could never know enough. Taking care of children 24/7 who have challenges was a humbling experience. They taught me so much of human nature and how unique each person is.”
“I learned more about myself than I ever have before,” De Quesada concludes.
Both young women are interested in returning to Camp Ramah as counselors in the Tikvah program and will soon begin exploring that possibility with the camp director.
Registration for Camp Ramah’s Summer 2014 session is open now. Visit ramah.org for details.