Communicating with Love at Camp
By Sarah Immerman
Earlier this summer at Camp HASC, I sat with David, an 8-year-old boy with autism who was away from home for his first summer. We were working to identify “appropriate camp behaviors” and “inappropriate camp behaviors” to help him succeed in camp. I had previously come up with examples to put into both categories and after reviewing the list together, I invited David to type his own ideas onto my laptop. David moved the cursor into the “Appropriate camp behavior” box and typed “growing together.”
I looked at David’s counselor, a 20-year-old college freshman, and asked him if “growing together” was a song they sang. He shook his head. I asked David if “growing together” was a game that he played or a show he watched, and he replied “No, no, it’s not a game or a show. It’s just growing together. That’s what we do at camp.”
Camp HASC is a Jewish overnight camp for children and adults with special needs, ranging in age from 5 years old to over 65. When the campers come through the gates, anything is possible despite their disabilities: they can ride horses, dance at concerts, swim every day, make new friends, become part of a proud Jewish community, participate in color war, and ride on adaptive bikes, while simultaneously receiving academic instruction and crucial speech, occupational, and physical therapy.
As David so beautifully and simply put it, at Jewish camp, we grow together. We strengthen each other day in and day out. David’s vision of growth encapsulates the mutual support and respect between staff and campers. While campers at Camp HASC receive around-the-clock care and personalized attention, our staff learns patience, creativity, connection, and empathy. Our camp philosophy is that we work as a team. Our goals mirror our Jewish values: to appreciate each other, care for one another, and provide opportunities and friendship for all people.
As a member of the Behavior Support Team at Camp HASC, I work with many of our campers to help them understand, adjust to, and thrive within the camp environment. We focus on ability, strength, and potential. From my summers at camp, I have learned that when you see people for who they are, you realize that everyone has something to contribute.
Earlier this summer, during a carnival night activity, I witnessed a powerful interaction between a programming staff member and a counselor. The staff member, Rachel, was engaging the camper in a shave-the-balloon activity and was communicating using hand motions and words. The counselor gently said to Rachel, “My camper is deaf and blind and can’t see or hear your instructions.” Rachel unassumingly asked the counselor, “If your camper is deaf and blind, how do you communicate with her?” Without any hesitation, the counselor responded, “With love.”
Our definitions of communication and connection expand beyond spoken word to include body language, eye contact, touch, and tone of voice. Communicating through love means a holding a hand to help calm her when she’s scared, raising her during a concert in her wheelchair, knowing her favorite route to the dining room, and remembering the way she prefers to take her medication. As camp professionals and members of the Jewish people, it is a blessing to be reminded every summer of all the unique and varied ways each of us can give and receive love. Camp helps me appreciate how many opportunities we have to form meaningful connections with one another, if only we take the time to look past our own assumptions and communicate with love.
At Jewish camp, we grow together. We communicate through love. We learn to see the beauty within God’s world in a new way. We grow to love ourselves, the people around us, and the entire Jewish people.
Sarah Immerman has spent the past 7 summers at Camp HASC, as a counselor and a member of the Psych/Behavior Team. Sarah is a student at LIU Post’s PsyD program in Clinical Psychology. She graduated from Barnard College and is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio.