Camp Without A Formal Program

By Benay Josselson
In A Parent's Perspective

As we become comfortable in our school routines and celebrate joyous Fall holidays, we can, believe it or not, already turn our attention to next Summer. It’s never too soon to begin thinking about Jewish Summer camp for your child, especially when you are seeking the right inclusive option.

R recently finishedcamp-2 his third summer at Camp Ramah in Nyack. Once again, we are astounded by the camp’s commitment to supporting R. Even though there is no formal support program in place for kids with special needs, the camp facilitates the inclusion of such campers by having an inclusion specialist, a social worker and a child psychologist work with the counselors, campers and families throughout the summer. Surrounded by a tzevet (staff) of dedicated, warm and loving counselors and staff, R had an overwhelmingly positive summer experience in 2014 for which we are thankful.

Of course, a wonderful summer for R does not mean it was the type of summer other parents might consider wonderful. A good day for R is still not what you would consider a good day for a neurotypical camper. And a bad day for R is one that would lead to calls with the rosh edah (division head).

I dreaded those calls because I felt horrible each time. You might think that it was something about what R said or did or how he acted that left me feeling this way, but that was not it. I felt guilty that in those instances, R was taking a counselor’s time and attention from another camper. I also felt guilty that even though the camp’s inclusion specialist (and the rest of the team) is an excellent resource for the counselors, I could only imagine how difficult it was for these 17 and 18 year olds to work with R without receiving any formal training. I knew that R did not need a shadow at camp – and I did not want R to have one. But at the same time, I felt so guilty about R’s difficult behavior on these occasions that I found myself agreeing with the Rosh Edah that if the camp determined R should have a shadow, we would be okay with that.

The good news is that R finished the summer without a shadow. But with each conversation I had, I wondered if having R at Ramah was the right thing – for R and for the camp. R loves the community, and thrives on the Judaic components of the camp day. But was it fair for us to allow that to outweigh the things he could get from a different day camp with a formal support program in place for working through issues such as the ones R presented with on and off this past summer? R’s counselors worked tirelessly with him, but is it fair to them to have to work with his special needs when they have not been trained? Or when they might not have wanted to work with a special needs camper in the first place?

I know that other camps offer more formalized programs to address these types of concerns. For example, some Ramah overnight camps have specific programs for campers with special needs (Tikvah program). Although no Tikvah program is identical, many offer different programming for campers with special needs, others offer a formal inclusion program – and all involve a formal training program for counselors working with special needs counselors, even those working with high functioning campers in inclusion settings. Many of the staff returns year after year because they want to work with this population of campers. Some even work with special needs students during the school year, as well.

But R is too young for overnight camp, and is not ready for that yet anyway. This begs the question – should we be looking outside Ramah? Should we be sending R to a camp which focuses more exclusively on social skills? Such camps are smaller in size, and the staff is trained in facilitating connections between the campers and using activities to teach social skills. Instead of teenagers, the counselors are educators and/or professionals with specialized backgrounds.

I can’t stop thinking about these questions, but the truth is that I know we will send R back to Ramah. He loves it, and we love it, too. Even on a bad day, R still came home with a huge smile and stories to tell. I love that more than I hate the guilt.

BenayThis post is a part of our monthly series called “A Parent’s Perspective”. The author, Benay Josselson, is an attorney who lives in New City, New York with her husband and two children.