‘Inclusive’ camps usher in new era in special needs

‘Inclusive’ camps usher in new era in special needs

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Gregory Schwartz, at a Cub Scouts Wild West-themed event last summer, will attend Camp Harlam for the first time this summer.    
Gregory Schwartz, at a Cub Scouts Wild West-themed event last summer, will attend Camp Harlam for the first time this summer.    

Like many of his peers, Gregory Schwartz of Whippany will be heading off to sleep-away camp for the first time this summer. The nine-year-old will be joining his sister Lily at the Reform movement’s Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pa.

Gregory has a variety of special needs — arising from apraxia, low-muscle tone, and some memory issues — that can make going to summer camp complicated.

“We do worry. My husband and I have talked about it and cried about it,” said his mother, Gigi Schwartz, in a phone interview. In the past, she said, Gregory has been bullied. 

The Schwartzes never considered sending their son to a camp that exclusively serves kids with special needs. “He’s not going to live in a special-needs world,” said Gigi. “We want him to try new things, to open up and make new friends and deal with whatever issues come his way.” 

Camp Harlam is one of six camps around the country selected for a three-year pilot project designed to increase access to Jewish camp for children with disabilities. As part of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Ruderman/Alexander Inclusion Initiative, the overnight camp will now have a full-time inclusion coordinator who works in the job through the year. 

The goal of the initiative is to increase the numbers of youngsters with all kinds of abilities at Jewish summer camps. 

Camp Harlam was already in the midst of its own focus on improving the experiences of all its campers, including those with different abilities, an effort that was begun in 2012, when it was selected for the project. At Harlam, under the direction of Aaron Selkow, the distinction between “special needs” and “mainstream” is fading. The camp calls it an “emphasis on sensitivity.”

“They’re all ‘mainstream kids’ at camp,” said Selkow. “We don’t separate them; instead, we work with every single kid as if she or he is an individual with strengths and weaknesses and unique needs. They learn to adapt and get along because they all have things about themselves that others can find different.

The initiative, funded by the Newton, Mass.-based Ruderman Family Foundation, comes in response to a study conducted by FJC in 2012-13. It revealed that children with disabilities are significantly under-represented in Jewish camps, and that proper staffing and training is among the biggest barriers. What’s more, according to the study, parents, children, and staffers prefer an inclusive environment. 

The project includes intensive training by the FJC for camp staff and for the new full-time inclusion coordinator.

The other camps chosen to participate in this pilot are Camp Judaea in Hendersonville, North Carolina; JCC Camp Chi in Lake Delton, Wisconsin; Camp Young Judaea Texas in Wimberley; B’nai B’rith Camp in Beaverton, Ore.; and Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, Calif.

Selkow believes that the Harlam inclusion model featuring full integration is the future for special-needs youngsters at camp. 

Many camps implement special-needs programs as separate initiatives within the larger camp — a model pioneered by the Conservative movement’s Ramah camps with its Tikvah program. Last summer, New Jersey Y Camps, one of the “elder statesmen” in the field of special-needs camping, integrated its once-separate Round Lake Camp for special needs with its camps in Milford, Pa. Younger Round Lake campers live in dedicated bunks in the Nah-Jee-Wah camp, while older kids live in self-contained bunks in the NJ Y’s Cedar Lake camp, sharing the day with their “typical” peers.

Selkow is taking a different approach. He believes that needs fall on a spectrum: At one end are campers who need help overcoming homesickness, while at the other are kids with more intensive day-to-day needs. 

Camp Harlam is providing what is known as “camper care” for every child. As part of the pilot, Lori Zlotoff, who has already worked in camper care for two summers, will serve as camper care coordinator, along with a full-time camper care manager, and a full-time social worker. Counselors will receive more intensive training. 

The program at Harlam already includes an individual assessment for every child.

“Even if ‘Aaron’ doesn’t come to camp with issues, if ‘Aaron’s’ program is going to be awesome, it will be unique to ‘Aaron’ and different from how ‘Johanna’ is going to thrive at camp. No two children need the same thing,” Selkow said. 

Some parents don’t mention that their children have been identified with special needs because they want to avoid the stigma or haven’t yet developed a trust with the camp. Selkow’s team has revamped the intake process with families, asking more in-depth questions about each child up front to anticipate issues that could arise.

“There are always going to be kids that come to camp — into a totally different social and structural environment than home — and will react differently and show various strengths and development needs that may be nuanced from their home personas,” Selkow said. 

Gigi Schwartz heard about the pilot and the new staffing from Selkow.

“I’m very excited they are bringing in a coordinator,” she said. 

So far this year, parents of 65 of the nearly 1,000 children who come to Camp Harlam have shared an interest in speaking with Selkow about the camp’s resources for working with youngsters with special needs.

For years, Jewish sleep-away camps like Harlam have been taking children with special needs on a case-by-case basis, something underscored in the FJC study. Many camps are debating how and whether to market their capacities to take youngsters with any variety of needs. In the meantime, the FJC, founded by Rob Bildner and Elisa Spungen Bildner of Montclair, has published a “Guide to Finding the Right Jewish Summer Camp for your Child with Disabilities,” available at onehappycampernj.org/specialneeds.

Selkow is thrilled to be part of what he sees as a shift in attitude among camps. “Jewish camps, thank God, are starting to talk openly, in a way that is not apologetic, but owning it and forcing all of us in the Jewish community to take seriously how we approach all kinds of disabilities and inclusion issues.”

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