It is the first day of camp and one of my campers is already totally overwhelmed. My co-counselor tells me to go sit with him. It is my first day on the job and my first summer as a counselor in the Tikvah program for campers with disabilities at Camp Ramah in Canada. I am merely 18 years old and I am unsure of what to do.
Luckily, the previous month I’d had the opportunity to attend the National Ramah Tikvah Network Conference which brings together staff from a variety of Jewish summer camps to share ideas and participate in sessions with experts in order to prepare for our work with campers with disabilities.
As my camper starts to bite his hand I become anxious. I tell myself, “Think. What did you learn at the Tikvah Network Conference?” My mind quickly floats to our session with Coach Elaine Hall (Coach E), the creator of The Miracle Project and the protagonist of the incredible HBO documentary, Autism: The Musical. I swiftly remember Coach E’s biggest piece of advice: Stay calm. The children can feel your mood and will act accordingly.
Although it is hard, I try to stay calm. As I become more calm so does my camper. But I still see that he is a bit anxious. Again I think back to the conference, and I remember that I learned about the ABC’s of behavior. I try to think about what the antecedent could be to this behavior. I realize that my camper is overwhelmed by all of the new people and the noise of the first day of camp. I take him to a quieter space. All the sudden he smiles at me, and thus begins an amazing summer full of growth and success.
The summer continues wonderfully. Of course there are ups and downs, but overall our campers have fun and most importantly their growth is outstanding. They learn to understand themselves, better communicate with the group, and live independently. It is so wonderful to watch their progress.
Throughout my life I have always enjoyed working with children with disabilities. However, until attending the National Ramah Tikvah Network conference, I had never considered working with individuals with disabilities as a full-time career. Attending the Tikvah conference and working as a Tikvah counselor changed that. Coming together with staff who work with campers with disabilities at many Jewish summer camps ignited something within me. Within the group, there was a feeling of excitement, a feeling that we, as Jewish educators, could make a real impact on the lives of children and young adults with disabilities, as well as the Jewish community as a whole.
Ramah invests an inconceivable amount on the Tikvah program and the National Tikvah Network. Over the past 40 years, Tikvah has grown to become an integral part of the Ramah community. I am so happy to have had the opportunity to work in a camp community that places such a high value on inclusion; not just in theory, but truly in practice. The National Ramah Tikvah Network trainings give Jewish summer camp staff the practical tools necessary to ensure successful growth of campers of all abilities. I feel privileged to have received this life-changing, valuable training, which may well impact the direction of my own career path in the years ahead.
Jason Graf is a staff member in the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in Canada. A 19-year-old who hails from Minneapolis, MN, Jason is currently attending a gap-year program in Israel and will begin The Jewish Theological Seminary-Columbia University Joint Program (List College) in the fall of 2015.