Inclusion at camp is not about Chesed, it is about Tzedek. It is not about creating something for “others”; it is about creating the best possible camp community for all. Hope, Abril and Becca, three fifteen year old campers at Capital Camps in Waynesboro, PA shared their insight on how having an inclusion program has been a special part of their camp experience. As Hope noted “we have grown up with these kids and would not have it any other way”. When an inclusion program becomes a normal part of every day life at camp, everyone benefits.
It is a win-win situation. As Hope points out, “At Capital Camps it is a double win, for us and those who are in the program because, we love having the people with disabilities and they have an incredible time at camp.” Jewish overnight camping provides numerous opportunities for personal growth and identity building. Abril, elaborated on how the Atzma’im program* has changed her by adding, “Before camp I had little exposure to kids with special needs. I didn’t know much about them and didn’t understand how they could possibly make connections with other people. This perception completely changed after going to camp. Not only was I exposed to people with special needs, but I made connections with them. I learned that interacting with them isn’t very different from interacting with your other camp friends.” These ideas are echoed as well by Becca: “The special needs program at Camp has taught me so much! It has taught me to accept others differences…. Before going to camp and seeing kids [with disabilities], I didn’t quite realize that even if we look different on the outside we can still be the same on the inside. These kids have given me such a different look at people.”
The counselors at Capital Camps also benefit from being part of an inclusion program. As Rachel, an Atzma’im counselor states, “I have learned how to have patience for others and to give them the benefit of the doubt…. I have also learned to be much more aware of the significance of inclusivity. The Atzma’im program instills counselors with a can-do attitude. I personally feel prepared to tackle challenges that might seem impossible, but with a little creativity and positivity can be solved. With full sincerity, I can say that being a counselor for the Atzma’im team has genuinely made myself, and fellow Atzma’im counselors, much more caring, considerate and inclusive people.”
Our campers and counselors take what they learn as part of an inclusion program home with them at the end of the summer. As Abril shared, “I now participate in best buddies at my school and interact with kids with special needs on a daily basis. They’ve become a part of our society and they need to be treated like any other part of our society would be.” Counselors have gone on to work in the field of special education, educational policy and Jewish camping where they are striving to build more inclusive camp communities.
Heading into its twelfth summer, the Atzam’im program is most remarkable because it has become unremarkable; it is just part of the fabric of camp. Creating these types of programs begins with the can-do attitude Rachel said she learned by being part of an inclusion program. Including campers with disabilities in all Jewish camps will make our camps an even better place for our young people to grow, connect and build Jewish value based identities.
*The Atzma’im (“independence”) program at Capital Camps provides a fully inclusive experience for campers with disabilities. Enrollment is based on individual campers’ respective skill levels not their disability type or school placement. The Atzma’im campers receive 1:1 or 2:1 support from specially trained counselors under the direction of an experienced special educator live in the same bunks as other campers and are involved in all aspects of camp as fully integrated members of the camp community.
Lisa Handelman is the Community Disabilities Inclusion Specialist for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and Atzma’im Coordinator for Capital Camps and Retreat Center. Lisa is also the mentor coordinator for the Washington DC cohort of the Matan Institute. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland with her husband and is the proud mom of 4 wonderful children who all grew up at camp.