by: Foundation for Jewish Camp Community Care April 3, 2023

Summer of fun, lifetime of inclusion

Singing and cheers rise up as campers and staff close out another week of summer fun together during Friday Shabbat. Campers, swaying back and forth to the sounds of the Shabbatones, Camp Yachad’s up beat, in-house band, welcoming the sabbath and the weekend as one community. It’s difficult to tell that a camper, Joseph, has a 1:1 counselor supporting his needs at camp as he links arms with his peers, in tie-dyed t-shirts, on either side of him. The noise canceling headphones that he wears to decrease his sensory overload are barely visible under his baseball cap.

Joseph spent many summers in the JCC inclusion camp program, always with a love for the rock wall. Carefully alternating little hands and feet to climb to the top, Joseph, though visibly nervous, is supported and encouraged by the cheers of his one-on-one, counselors, and peers to continue on to earn the coveted “top of the rock” button.

For Mark, exploration in JCC Camp Ruach’s sensory garden, made possible with funding from Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Yashar Intitiative, helped him feel at ease in his new environment. Having traveled from California to spend the summer with his grandmother, the garden gave him time to connect with peers and find comfort away from home. He enjoyed singing along and playing instruments while finding joy and comfort in the outdoors.

But for Camp Yachad in Scotch Plains and Camp Ruach in Bridgewater, inclusion isn’t a singular program or one physical enhancement; it is a philosophy and value that is embedded in every component of their work. It is a true sense of belonging in a community that willingly extends year-round support to individuals with disabilities and their families so that everyone can participate equitably. Led and motivated by the camp community inclusion has been crafted into the culture helping ensure that campers and staff with disabilities have a year-round and life long acceptance at camp and beyond.

At Camp Ruach, campers and young adults with special needs transition into the Camp Chaverim unit (for campers above the age of 14 years) where they can both enjoy their favorite camp activities, volunteer and spend time learning vocational skills, and make significant contributions to the larger camp community. Our Chaverim campers who serve lunch and support specialists, are greeted with smiles, hellos, and high-fives from the younger campers.

When Joseph aged out of camp, he was hired on staff as an Assistant Specialist at the rock wall, receiving vocational training and social skills support along the way to be successful in his new, paid position. The transition from camper to staff is a camper’s right of passage, made possible through inclusive programming and planned support. Now, the young campers that scale the rock wall look to Joseph to cheer them on and expertly belay them up the wall.

For campers at both of these camps, experiencing camp alongside their neurodiverse peers encourages awareness, acceptance, and inclusion of individuals with disabilities and raises their social consciousness from a young age. It helps to foster a culture of inclusivity and understanding among all children. By bringing children with disabilities together with their peers, camps help to break down stereotypes and promote mutual understanding and respect. Children learn that everyone has unique strengths, and these campers that have shared their summer camp experience with Joseph and Mark are the next great cohort of counselors and leaders, continuing our culture of belonging into the future and beyond the grounds of our properties.

Building confidence, developing new skills, and forming positive relationships with one’s peers is a key value of these camps regardless of one’s ability. By offering a wide range of activities and accommodations, supporting children’s mental and emotional well-being, and fostering a culture of inclusivity and understanding, these camps provide children with disabilities with an opportunity to thrive and grow in a supportive and empowering environment.

Camp Yachad in Scotch Plains, NJ and JCC Camp Ruach in Bridgewater, NJ both received funding from Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Yashar Initiative. The Yashar Initiative, generously funded by The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, has provided ACA-accredited Jewish day and overnight camps in the US with essential funding for capital improvements to increase accessibility, as well as professional development, research, and evaluation.

Alanna Steinberg, MSW, MA, is entering her 6th summer as the Camp Director at JCC Camp Ruach at the Shimon & Sara Birnbaum JCC in Bridgewater, NJ, where she herself was a former camper and counselor. She works proudly alongside the inclusion team at JCC Camp Ruach to create meaningful and positive experiences for all.

Mallory Zipkin is entering her 8th summer as the Director at Camp Yachad at the JCC of Central NJ in Scotch Plains. Mallory’s favorite part of camp is Maccabiah (Color War) and she was a proud blue team general when she grew up as a staff member at Camp Yachad.