Embracing ALL Campers Since 1979
Embracing ALL Campers Since 1979
By Eva Cowen, Director of Kochavim at Bender JCC
When my daughter, Ellie, was four-years-old, she sat on the floor of my office after camp one day recounting pretty much every second of her day. I asked her how her lunch was. She told me it was great and then decided she had to tell me what everyone else in her group had for lunch, as well. “Hannah had a bagel, Noah had mac and cheese, Nathan ate in his belly, and Shira had hummus.” The fact that Nathan got his lunch through a feeding tube was no more newsworthy than any other aspect of her day – it was just another detail.
On a different, yet very typical, day at Camp JCC, we thought it would be a great idea to do an inter-generational program. We invited some senior adults to come to talk to our campers about the kinds of games they played when they were young. Someone’s lovely Grandma stood in the front of the room and talked about a game that she had played using wooden sticks. In the back of the room, Jason happily paced around. Someone’s lovely Grandma said to a counselor, “If that boy can’t behave himself and sit down, then you need to take him out of the room.” Before the counselor could get out a syllable, another camper stood up and said, “That’s Jason! He has a hard time listening when he is sitting still and when he walks around he can listen better. You can’t make him leave!” And it didn’t end there. Campers from Jason’s group marched into the Camp Director’s office and demanded, “How can you invite people here who are so mean to Jason?”
“Hinei ma tov u’ma na’im shevet achim gam yachad.” – “Behold how good and pleasant it is when all people live together as one.” (Psalm 133)
“Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh.” – “All of Israel are responsible for each other” (Shevuot 39a)
Camp JCC, and the entire Bender JCC of Greater Washington, operates under these Jewish – and human – values always. For us, inclusion is not a program or a choice. It is not a section in the program guide. It is a way of operating. Recently, I was part of a gathering of Jewish Community Center professionals who are working to ensure that JCC’s across the country have the capacity to be fully inclusive.
One of the questions we asked ourselves was, “What is the vision we have for the kind of people we want to come out of our JCC’s and what kind of human being do we want to nurture here?” We have already seen it: in Ellie and in Jason’s friends and advocates. They have internalized the knowledge that we all belong. And by “all” I don’t just mean people with disabilities – I mean all. When kids see full acceptance of others they learn that others will fully accept them, as well. In broader society we have lately been seeing the devastating effects on our young people when they don’t feel loved and accepted.
Camp JCC has been fully inclusive of campers with a full range of disabilities since 1979. We became inclusive because one amazing woman, Sara Portman Milner, – believed that we should be. It wasn’t until over a decade later that inclusivity became the law under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Prior to the law being enacted, Camp JCC also decided that we were not going to charge families extra for the extra support we were giving to their children.
We would make sure camper got what they needed. We would be a community and we would all be responsible for one another. I was hired as an inclusion counselor in our teen travel camp in 1986. It was going to be a fun summer job for a couple of summers. This summer will be my 33rd season. Although the thought of doing “something else” has crossed my mind once or twice, it is always only a fleeting thought. I can’t imagine giving up the chance – for eight weeks a year – to be part of a microcosm of what the world could be.
I do not fault someone’s lovely Grandma for her lack of understanding about children who think and act differently. She grew up during a time where different was not acceptable. Because of Camp JCC, I know that in sixty years, if Ellie is someone’s lovely Grandma, she will embrace and understand Jason’s unique way of listening while she tells her story.
She will love and appreciate the people in her life for all that they are – because of their green hair, or the unique way they see the world, or who they love – not in spite of those things.