Success at Camp
Inclusion…mainstreaming …general education…. One on one/shadow…these are words that fly through my mind almost daily, and are a regular part of my vocabulary. My son Sammy is 9 years old, and on the autism spectrum. He is what some might consider “high functioning.” He has no issue with communicating his needs and likes (and definitely his dislikes!). He is happy, affectionate, and has a healthy sense of humor. This social butterfly loves unconditionally and just wants to be friends with everyone. He is incredibly smart and has a memory that won’t quit. Sammy is adventurous and active, sometimes a little too fearless for my comfort level. He is incredibly aware of his surroundings and is a creature of habit. Due to his developmental disability he appears younger than he actually is. His interests are not always completely age appropriate and can be limited in scope. We work to introduce new activities and interests as often as possible to broaden his horizons and help keep up with his peers.
He has a full and happy life, but his knowledge of Judaism is quite limited. Our oldest son attended Camp Deeny Riback (CDR) in Flanders for nine years and our daughter has been there for seven years and running. This day camp program is second to none, offering an enviable array of activities and just the right dose of Jewish heritage programming. It was determined that Sammy was a perfect candidate for the Camp Friends program, CDR’s inclusive experience for children with special needs. Last year we took a deep breath (well truthfully I did, my husband was cool as a cucumber the whole time) and decided it was time to give Sammy the chance to shine in that setting too. We signed Sammy up for the minimum four week session. CDR’s staff has a reputation for being attentive, professional, and dedicated to making each and every camper’s summer a spectacular one.
It was now Sammy’s turn to experience this fantastic program and all it has to offer. Since I feared that placing him in a group of boys his own age– while being the “new kid on the block”–might be a bit too much for him, I asked if we could try fitting him in with group of boys just one year younger. This request was granted without question, and helped to ease my apprehension. Since cooperative play, initiating with peers, and asking/answering questions were at the top of our list of goals, we thought this arrangement would be a more appropriate fit.
At this point I knew several things for certain: 1) Sammy would have an amazing summer at CDR, 2) he would have a dedicated one- on -one shadow assigned to him (and I was assured that his shadow would blend in with the other counselors, no hovering, step in and support when needed, etc.), 3) he would have a somewhat easier time socially, thanks to that one year age difference between him and his bunk mates, 4) he would get the perfect amount of exposure to his Jewish roots via Israeli culture, Friday afternoon Shabbat programming, cooking, songs, etc. and 5) he would be gently nudged out of his comfort zone a bit via new peers, new routine, new activities, and a new setting.
The one thing I didn’t know… the thing that had me worried… will Sammy fit in? Will the other kids like him and accept him for who he is? Will he have friends? These thoughts plagued me. Nevertheless, it was time to take a chance and give both he and CDR the chance to prove my fears were inflated.
Fast forward to the day before camp began…camp visitation day. We knew attending this event was a must. It would be the perfect opportunity for Sammy to see firsthand where he would be spending the next four weeks. We arrived and were cheerfully greeted by Becca (the head of the Camp Friends program) and Sammy’s unit leaders, who lead us to a group of friendly and energetic young men, the counselors in charge of Sammy’s group. We handed Becca a list of “goals” (developed by one of our private therapists) for Sammy to work on over the summer such as social skills, eye contact, asking for help, and fostering independence. We were introduced to a friendly, down to earth young man (Mikey) who was assigned to be Sammy’s shadow. We spent a few minutes talking to Mikey about Sammy, but the best way for Mikey to get to know Sammy was by jumping right in and spending time with him. Mikey immediately worked to start forging a connection with Sammy. Sammy was invited to explore camp with the counselors… find his cubby…see the pool…see the ropes course…kick around a soccer ball. My heart skipped a beat as I watched my curly haired boy happily and willingly trot off with the counselors to check out his new camp. It’s as if with that gesture he was saying “it’s all going to be ok, mom. Don’t worry, I’m gonna have a great time here.” He would’ve jumped in the pool that day if we let him. On the ride home Sammy was asking to come back the next day, and talking about all of the things he wanted to do there. He was READY.
I didn’t sleep much the night before camp, as my nerves had gotten the best of me. That morning he leapt out of bed, excited and energized. He hopped onto the bus smiling, happy, cheery. My 11 year old daughter must have sensed my anxiety and took me aside to say “Don’t worry Mom, I won’t let anyone tease him. I will look after him.” Tears of pride filled my eyes. I watched the bus pull away and felt a pit in my stomach. “Please let my baby have a great day…” was all I could think to myself. I had to sit on my hands all day to keep from calling the camp and checking on him. Although I knew he was in very good hands, the “mama bear” in me couldn’t help being concerned and worried.
The bus arrived home at the end of the day. Sammy was tired, he smelled of chlorine, his clothes had a generous film of dirt from playing outside, and he was happy: the surefire signs of a successful day at camp! Since I was given his schedule on camp visitation day I knew exactly what kind of questions to ask and what sort of answers to expect when talking about his day. Several minutes later, Becca called me with the best news I could possibly expect. She told me he had a great day: He participated in all of the activities, followed the daily routine, he was happy, he was social, and that he was a pleasure to have. What more could I ask for than a great start to a new experience?
The days went by and every day it was evident that Sammy was having increasingly more fun. He would share stories about himself and the boys in his group, and all the new experiences he was having. He was singing some of the Hebrew songs, reciting bits of the prayers, and was without fail excited to go to camp each and every morning. It was clear to see that he was part of a camp family, and expanding his horizons.
About a week and a half into the summer, Becca called to offer Sammy the opportunity to visit Camp Nah Jee Wah (an NJY overnight camp in PA) for “Science Day.” Many of the boys in his group were attending, and the activities would likely appeal to Sammy. Another deep breath was required here… this involved a long bus ride to a new location, as well as a change of routine. I was assured that Mikey would accompany him for the day, so I asked Sammy if he was interested. He enthusiastically agreed, and I knew I needed to allow him the chance to try something new. He ended up having a great time and participated in activities such as banana boat rides on the lake and science experiments.
Two weeks of camp had passed and Sammy’s enjoyment continued to grow. It was obvious that he felt right at home. The reports from staff were glowing; he was blossoming. He started to pedal a two wheeler a little, he canoed for the first time, he zipped down the zip line. He was taking chances, coming out of his comfort zone, learning new things, and feeling more connected to his religion. We were told that he was truly part of the group, and well liked by the other campers. He was interacting with campers and staff of all ages, making his mark on CDR.
At this point in time we knew what had to be done… it was an easy decision to extend Sammy to a total of seven weeks at camp (the eighth week was set aside for our family summer vacation). The benefits he was reaping from this program were huge. Our little caterpillar was turning into a strong confident butterfly.
Sammy truly grew attached to his shadow in a very short time. We saw numerous great pictures of them together and it was easy to see their bond and mutual caring for one another. Mikey left at the end of four weeks and on his last day was awarded a small plush cow wearing a CDR t-shirt. This is a CDR tradition—the COW (Counselor of the Week) award. My daughter told me that Mikey gave this award to Sammy. When he arrived home with this lovely token I was brought to tears. For the remaining three weeks Sammy was paired with a different shadow counselor, also a very nice young man. He had a wonderful time with him as well. He was a super friend and support to Sammy and helped his summer to end on a great note.
We are incredibly grateful for the role that CDR played in Sammy’s life last summer. The Camp Friends program made it possible for him to immerse himself in all of the wonderful aspects of a Jewish day camp, while receiving the support and encouragement he needed. Becca, Mikey, and all of the staff who worked with Sammy deserve a round of applause for making him feel comfortable and safe enough to take chances he might not have otherwise taken (and for making this nervous mother feel comfortable enough to let go and allow Sammy to show us all he is capable of). I cannot stress enough how important it is to find that perfect balance of the right staff, the right setting, and a warm, welcoming atmosphere to make the inclusion experience a true success. Needless to say, Sammy is registered to attend CDR for the summer of 2015. He has been talking about his camp friends for months, and hopes to see many of them again. We are optimistic for another great summer, and expect to see him grow and develop even further in this fantastic inclusion program.