How Our Inclusion Program Changed the Entire Camp Community for the Better
February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. Join us as we share stories that highlight the impact of inclusion in our camp communities.
Last summer, due to the generous support of donors and foundations, and because of the vision and collective will of our camp leadership, Camp Ramah in the Poconos opened the doors to our new residential program for campers with significant cognitive and developmental disabilities. Throughout the course of the second session, we welcomed 12 unique and spirited campers into our newest ‘eidah’ in camp, called Yedidim, our friends. (This name was chosen in a naming contest that our typical campers participated in last off-season.)
Here are some of our biggest takeaways from last summer’s auspicious start to this magnificent program:
- Our Yedidim campers are, in so many ways, exactly like all of our campers! They love Rikkud (dance) except for when they don’t. They don’t like to get up early, they LOVE their counselors, and they are very sad when they have to leave camp at the end of the summer. In fact, becoming a more inclusive camp community taught us all that we are all far more alike than we are different.
- We also learned a lot FROM our Yedidim program; learnings that can make our camp better for everyone. For example, during a tour of the new Yedidim bunks, a counselor with neuro-typical ten year olds looked at the whiteboard used to explain the weather, which clothes to put on that day, and the daily schedule, and remarked “Hey, my campers could really use one of these too!” He was right, so we are ordering them for our youngest bunks throughout camp.
- Judaism is an integral part of everything we do at Ramah, and the same is true for Yedidim. T’fillot (prayers) with our Yedidim participants became a go-to option for our typical campers who wanted to sit with, get to know, and pray with our Yedidim campers. This joyful expression of Judaism, was a blessing to all of us this summer and again taught us how fun, participatory, and individualized t’fillot can (and should) be at Camp Ramah.
- When we built this program, we obviously did so with the Yedidim campers in mind. We are beyond grateful that all of our campers who participated in our program last year are signed up again for this summer. To give these campers the joy of a Ramah experience is our ultimate accomplishment.
We also discovered this summer that our Yedidim program was not only a blessing for our participants, but it changed our entire camp community for the better. Our incomparable staff had their most exhausting and personally and professionally fulfilling summer of their lives. Our typical campers made new friends and have kept those relationships up throughout the course of the year. And many of our campers and our parents have commented that their child came home last summer more sensitive and aware to the special needs that everyone has in our lives.
During the final week of camp, our oldest age group writes a play (in Hebrew of course!) lampooning the hilarities of the summer that was. This year there was a special scene.
Sung to the tune of “7 Years” by Lucas Graham, our campers sang “Once there were 7 eidot (divisions)”
“But there were only 7 eidot. Just 7 eidot and we knew that someone was missing.
Finally we were ready, to welcome the campers who would make us complete, so special in all they do, Yedidim – we all love you.
And now there are 8 eidot.
Shechiyanu, Vikiyemanu, La’Zman haZeh.
You can watch the performance of this song here!
Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the Executive Director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, an organization that offers summer programs for campers with special needs at Ramah Day Camp in Philadelphia, the Tikvah Family Camp, and now in the Yedidim and Inclusion programs at the overnight camp.