For Katie and Jonathan Porwick of Westfield — whose son Ethan was born with cerebral palsy and developmental issues — Camp Yachad’s new adaptive sports program for children with special needs removed one particular worry.
Sending a child with challenges to summer camp — where most of the kids are typically skilled at sports and there’s an emphasis on competition — can be daunting. But, said Katie, enrolling Ethan in the new program removed the worry about his inability or unwillingness to compete or participate.
“It’s not necessarily about winning, it’s about enjoying being active and being with your friends more than it is actually being able to shoot and score a basket,” she said.
After 18 months of planning, Camp Yachad, sponsored by and located at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains, launched the program aimed at children facing different challenges every day, both physically and mentally.
The adaptive sports camp — which took place June 22-26, before the start of the regular camp session — included campers ranging from kindergartners to fourth-graders. It was staffed by four counselors trained in special education. The goal is to have a program for many more youngsters in the future, while assuring a two-to-one counselor to camper ratio.
Camp Yachad partnered with Throwback Sports, a sports program for children based in New York City. The owner and director of Throwback Sports, Mike Cohen — a certified special education teacher who received his degree in special education from New York University — designed and helped run the program.
Mike Goldstein, chief operating officer and codirector of Camp Yachad, has served as a link between the camp and Throwback Sports and is cocreator of the adaptive sports program. Goldstein said his concerns included keeping the campers happy and safe and ensuring that they would feel success “through the culture of sports every day.”
“Through sports, we can teach children with special needs physical, social, and interactive skills,” Goldstein said. Different games and activities in the program were designed to help campers develop balance, endurance, and strength.
However, the new program offers much more than physical improvement. “Sports can offer many things to a child with special needs. The first thing is fun. The second one is being able to teach children the skills of being able to play cooperatively with one another and have positive social interactions,” Goldstein said.
Ethan certainly took more out of the program than improving his athletic abilities and passion for sports, said his mother. “He made new friendships,” said Katie Porwick. “When we picked him up, he would be smiling, and he knew that he had a great time that day, and he told us at dinner…that he had fun and that he played sports with his friends.”
All in all, Ethan “had a great social experience and a lot of fun,” said Porwick, adding that he was able to learn about and improve on competition, sharing, accepting defeat gracefully, effort, and other values that the campers incorporated into their everyday lives.
The adaptive sports camp was on site at the JCC, and its participants used the camp and JCC facilities on the Wilf campus, including swimming pools, gaga pits, open fields, and basketball courts.
Camp Yachad runs many different types of programs, including on-site, travel, and performing arts. Each program is governed by the principle of inclusion, said Goldstein.
The new program “just underscores our commitment to providing an inclusive environment open to all members of our community. It just reinforces that that is what we are about,” he said.
Cohen and Goldstein said they will look to expand the program, perhaps moving it to the Wardlaw-Hartridge School in Edison, where Camp Yachad already runs some programs. There, they said, campers will have the opportunity to play a wider variety of sports, including tennis.