The Photo Op of a Lifetime
“I have a son with special needs. I would love to feel like there would be a place for him at Camp Harlam.” The words stood out to me on the page as if it were wrapped in neon lights. As a professional staff, we were reviewing the results of the end of summer survey we give to parents. Amongst hundreds of comments on the page, this one resonated deep within my soul. As camp’s Inclusion Coordinator, it is my job and my privilege to work with campers of all abilities and give them the support and accommodations necessary to be successful at camp. But we need to find those campers, and hope they find us. Frankly, it’s the hardest part of my job. And here was an already established Harlam family that had a potential camper for us!
I drove 6 hours to meet him. I wanted to do an in-person assessment, and connect with this family. I wanted to let them know that as much as they wanted their son at camp, we equally wanted him to be there. We feel it is our responsibility to create a community at Harlam that mirrors the make-up of outside world – and to create space for children of all abilities to participate. It was especially important for us to make this truly a Harlam family – where all 3 children could one day come to camp together.
When I arrived, the love and support in the room was palpable. I could quickly see how a camp community could rally around this camper and support him, similar to how his family did. I watched as his brother and sister interacted with him, spoke about him and verbalized how they wanted him to be at camp. And then Dad spoke. He told me that when you’re the parent of a child with special needs, you are accustomed to being told no most of the time. You expect to have to fight so that your child’s basic needs are met. You are not used to getting an email like mine. An email that asked if I could explore with them the possibility of their son attending our camp. Dad said that when he got that email, he nearly fell out of his chair.
And so I explained that we at Harlam are driven to do what is right, not because it makes us feel good, but because it makes all of us better. It makes our community more whole, more complete and gives more kids the opportunity to love and experience camp.
Then dad, with tears in his eyes, said he could see clearly in his mind the photo he would take of all three of his children in front of the bunk on the first day of camp. And with tears in my eyes, I said that it was our privilege to be able to make that happen.
Lori Zlotoff is a licensed clinical social worker and is the Inclusion Coordinator for URJ Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, PA. She is also a therapist with a private practice on Long Island, working with children and their families.