Integrating, Including, Celebrating and Needing All Types of Campers
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 March, I attended the Foundation for Jewish Camp conference on Inclusion and had the privilege of hearing Pamela Schuller speak. Her story hit me hard: isolated from the Jewish community because of a disability that wasn’t understood and ultimately feeling a sense of belonging because of positive experiences at a Jewish overnight camp. Pamela’s message was clear: Inclusion should be about celebrating the individual while still accommodating their needs. As I went into my first summer as inclusion coordinator at Camp Yavneh, I wondered if her message could truly be implemented in today’s Jewish camps.
As summer quickly approached I thought about Pamela’s words of “celebrating while still accommodating” the individual. I wanted the campers to feel that they were integrated, included, celebrated and needed at Camp Yavneh.
This summer one camper with a particularly high level of anxiety started panicking. He started shrilling loudly in a bathroom stall and many of his bunk-mates became concerned. The boy eventually calmed down and as we were talking he asked if he could explain to his bunk what happened and what some of his challenges are. Later that day, in his own words, the boy explained how he was born with hearing loss and how when he’s nervous, anxious or scared he resorts to screaming using the sounds he first heard.
I didn’t know how his bunk would react. I was blown away when the bunk began talking about their own anxieties and strategies that they use to cope. The boys of this bunk helped their peer feel accepted, celebrated, validated and all of this began with an honest conversation that was initiated by the individual.
I watched this bunk throughout the summer. I watched as this boy was highlighted during activities where he felt successful and encouraged to try new activities not only by his counselors but also by the bunkmates that accepted him on the first day of camp.
How does this translate to daily life? Can inclusion at camp help a person feel accepted in the Jewish community as a whole?
I have had the opportunity of communicating with the boy’s family frequently and finding out that this boy came back from camp with a renewed sense of self. His mom told me that thought at times he’s still timid and scared but he is now open to trying new opportunities. Unlike before he now, happily accepts invitations to play-dates, plays football with friends (something he never would have done before) and has even started inviting friends over to his house.
This story is about one boy finding his place in a Jewish camp and that’s exactly what inclusion is about. It’s about the individual! Each and every child’s story is different but it is our duty to try and help create more anecdotes like this one. Jewish camp, with all its magic is the perfect place to teach a child that they are celebrated and are needed in the Jewish world.
Miriam is the Inclusion Coordinator at Camp Yavneh. Miriam is a Barnard College graduate and earned a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood and Special Education from Teachers College at Columbia University. She used to work at TheraCare where she was trained and gained skills in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). She continued to work with children who have been diagnosed with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder using ABA and evaluating children for services. Miriam also sits on Westchester Jewish Council’s Building Communities Roundtable, a committee focused on the inclusion of developmentally disabled children into mainstream synagogue, school, and community activities. During the year, Miriam works for Yedidut. She lives in New Rochelle, NY with her husband Ari and their five sons.