On a recent Tuesday on the sports field at Camp Yachad, located at the JCC of Central NJ in Scotch Plains, a group of boys going into third grade were playing gaga, an Israeli version of dodgeball.
They had convinced camp director Mike Goldstein to join them in the pit, decorated with hamsas, good-luck amulets popular in Israel. As they played, a counselor urged one of the boys to join. “Just try it, for a little bit,” he said.
Others offered encouragement, and the boy eventually did make it into the pit for a little while. Another camper high-fived him.
Across the large field, a group of younger boys going into first grade were getting their first lesson in cricket. Counselors stuck close to one or two of the campers, whispering special instructions or encouragement. Once on the field, they ran with everyone else.
“I got you, you’re out,” shouted David gleefully (at his parents’ request, his real name is not being used).
For a child with special needs, local day camp options are limited, especially if the goal is to find a mainstream placement in a camp that provides extra assistance when needed.
Locally, NJJN found just three options in the Jewish community: two are JCC-affiliated camps — Camp Deeny Riback in Flanders, affiliated with the Leon & Toby Cooperman JCC in West Orange, and Camp Yachad, affiliated with the Scotch Plains JCC; both JCCs are beneficiary agencies of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
The other is Gan Israel, affiliated with Chabad’s Rabbinical College of America in Morristown.
“There are very, very few programs for kids with mild special needs who, with a little additional support, can participate with everyone else,” said David’s mother in a telephone call with NJJN.
David has auditory processing issues and, according to his mother, is “socially immature.”
Having one-to-one support, she said, allows her son and others like him “to participate fully without distracting from the group.”
The three camps take kids with a range of disabilities, from autism spectrum disorder and Tourette Syndrome to auditory processing, learning disabilities, anxiety and other behavioral issues, and physical disabilities like cerebral palsy. All three charge an extra weekly fee to help cover the costs associated with hiring “shadows.”
“The goal is to enable special-needs kids to be in a typical camp experience so they have typical kids as role models, and also to have an experience where the Jewish flavor penetrates the camp day,” said Julie Perlow, director of Camp Friends, the special-needs program at Deeny Riback.
This summer, 10 campers are enrolled in Camp Friends, although Deeny Riback has had as many as 18 in previous years. “When kids come to camp, they want to feel good about themselves. We try to find something every day that makes them feel good,” said Perlow. She often calls parents to share successes.
That’s something Camp Yachad does as well. David’s mother still remembers when the camp called her the very first day her son was there three summers ago. “They said, ‘We’re calling to let you know your son is happy and having a good time.’ He was little — he was just four,” she said. “It was a big deal to send him off on a bus and hope he’d be okay. Getting that phone call saying everything was okay meant a lot.”
Gan Israel, the smallest of the three programs, does not have an advertised formal special-needs framework, but will provide shadows when requested by parents who want their children integrated into the camp. This summer, Gan Israel has eight special-needs campers with shadows. All go to special-needs schools throughout the year.
According to camp director Rabbi Mendel Solomon, the hardest part of the arrangement is finding the shadows, whom he often recruits from the corps of volunteers at the Friendship Circle, a Chabad-sponsored program offering respite care for families with children with special needs which is another beneficiary agency of the federation.
At all three camps, shadows offer everything from social skills training to enabling a child to take more frequent breaks. Sometimes they’ll provide alternate activities.
Camp Yachad’s special-needs group is the largest of the three, with about 50 participants. It is the only one of the three with two program levels: 25 kids have shadows, and another 25 get extra assistance if necessary and are supported by the special-needs infrastructure; the camp has two full-time special-needs coordinators. It also enrolls special-needs campers in its travel programs for seventh- and eighth-graders. With a total of 800 campers from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, it is one of the largest JCC camps in North America.
As at the other camps, every shadow is trained in advance and may have anywhere from no experience to years of teaching experience.
Mike Goldstein (no relation to the Yachad camp director with the same name) is serving as a shadow for the first time at Camp Yachad. A pre-med student from Scotch Plains who is attending Rutgers University, he was a Friendship Circle volunteer during his first two years in high school. He jumped at the opportunity to be a shadow this year, and said he thinks it will help him in the future.
But, he acknowledged, it’s a different experience from those once-a-week hourly visits to a home where parents of the special-needs child are close by.
“This is putting me into the deep end, with constant contact every single day. When I was with the Friendship Circle, the mom was around, so if I needed anything, the mom was right there,” he said. “At the camp, you’re kind of by yourself, with the special-needs coordinators — but the parents are not there. It’s a new experience and a lot of fun. It’s definitely something I’m enjoying.”
According to each of the camp directors, the programs benefit not only the special-needs kids and their shadows, but everyone, from the lead counselors who learn how to aid the shadows during the day’s activities, to campers who are sometimes interacting with special-needs kids for the first time.
“For some of them, it’s really eye-opening,” said Stacie Lieberman, the special-needs coordinator at Yachad. “It’s really nice when typical kids include them in the group. Not everyone can do that at a young age.”
Integrating the special-need campers is “a blessing to see on many fronts,” said Solomon at Gan Israel. “The parents are happy. The kids are happy. The typical kids are great and often go out of their way to be sensitive and affectionate in a way they normally would not.”