Where special campers meet the ‘real world’
Merger of NJ Y camps creates ‘inclusive’ experience for kids
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Amy Rozen of Rockaway Township was at first hesitant to sign her son Ariel up for New Jersey Y Camps’ Round Lake Camp.
As much as she liked the camp, she was “torn,” she said, because Ariel needs only “mild” support through the day and in navigating certain social situations. At the time, Round Lake was exclusively for children with special needs, and she worried the peer group wouldn’t be right.
“I didn’t know who the other kids were, how limited their abilities would be,” she said.
Trusting her gut (and the Round Lake social worker), she sent Ariel to the camp. That was three summers ago, and he’s been back every summer since.
Between the time Ariel enrolled and now, NJ Y Camps instituted a change that will make it easier for families like his. In time for his second summer, the camp integrated into NJ Y Camps’ Nah Jee Wah (for younger kids) and Cedar Lake Camp (for older kids), both in Milford, Pa.
Under integration, children with disabilities attend camp with typically abled peers. Merging the two types of camps meets the needs of a growing number of families who previously sent their children to an exclusively special needs camp but really wanted an inclusive environment.
“The segregation model is collapsing, especially in schools,” said Round Lake Camp director Aryn Barer. “There are so many kids with [Individualized Education Programs] in mainstream classes.”
Round Lake Camp was started 32 years ago for youngsters with special needs. It caters to a mostly high functioning, low-needs population — kids with ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, and some communication disorders, as well as kids who need some social support. At its height, the camp, located in Como, Pa., attracted 150 to 200 campers each summer.
For a long time, there was little competition. But by the time the camp was considering integration, Barer said, “there were so many programs catering to children with special needs that our numbers were going down. We wanted to ensure that we had enough enrollment to provide a great program.”
Keeping the camp separate with declining numbers would have meant that “we could not afford to have the specialties we wanted or the breadth of programs,” she said.
The numbers are back up to about 150 campers this summer, and Barer thinks that’s a direct response to integration.
“This is the new normal,” NJ Y Camps executive director Len Robinson told an interviewer soon after the merger. “I encourage every CEO to examine this issue, step forward, and do the right thing. We take better care of each child in all of our camps because of this change. We are a better agency because of this.”
Round Lake campers continue to receive extra support as needed. They are housed on the same campus as the other NJ Y campers, but live in their own bunks with a higher staff-to-camper ratio and have as much or as little mainstream experience as is appropriate.
“Some kids integrate all day long, while some do so for just one or two periods of the day,” said Barer. “There are 70 different activities at Cedar Lake, and all are integrated.” If campers need separate instruction, she added, that can be arranged as well.
This summer was Jake Scherr’s first at the camp, and the decision was a “no brainer,” said his mother, Sharone Scherr of Livingston.
Jake, a rising seventh-grader with spina bifida occulta, has issues mostly having to do with coordination and motor skills. “I like the aspect of integration. That’s a microcosm of the real world, and any time you can do that, you should,” Scherr said.
Although she said a segregated camp “would not have been a deal breaker,” she added, “I prefer integration. It keeps the options open.”
Rozen is thrilled with the variety, and the fact that Ariel can take advantage of the many specialties offered to the rest of the campers. “He played chess with a grand master. He did a week of sciences and a week of ceramics. It’s been really good for him,” she said.
For Scherr, the biggest issue with integration is implementation.
“If it’s not managed properly, then what’s the point?” she said. “That’s a big issue we have in school. Jake is always on the cusp of integration, but he always ends up on the outskirts. He’s tolerated, but not appreciated.”
NJ Y Camps got it right, she said. “Everything worked well at camp. People are educated in the area of special needs, and they have the time to educate the others and keep a watchful eye.
“Jake will definitely go back,” Scherr said.
For Barer, the biggest issue wasn’t acceptance by other kids, but getting the Round Lake kids to have the confidence to take advantage of the mainstream activities. “They are afraid they won’t succeed with typical kids, especially in an area like athletics that are not where their skills lie,” she said.
Asked about any downsides to the merger, Rozen and her husband, Shachar, could think of none. Shachar said, “As a family of a twice exceptional child who at times requires focused attention, and at the same time has the potential to contribute so much to the world around him, this integration was and is everything we hoped for.”
Amy added, “I want Ariel to be among kids with challenges and kids who are typical. He needs the model of the typical kids and he makes friends with all kinds of kids, and camp is a place to learn and grow.”