At the end of May, I attended the National Ramah Spring Staff Training Institute at Camp Ramah in New England as a representative of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack. I participated in a specialized training track for staff members from other Ramah and Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) camps who work with campers with disabilities. Inclusion is a very important value at Ramah, and having the opportunity to collaborate and share ideas with other camp staff members who are devoted to including every camper within the daily camp day was inspiring.
The campers in my edah (division) at Ramah Nyack are entering kindergarten – the youngest age group – and have varying capabilities in terms of emotional and physical development. Every summer my co-staff and I work to include all of the campers in every activity regardless of ability. The training provided me with tangible tips and strategies to use in times of difficulty. During the training we learned about person-first language, ABCs of behavior modification, executive functioning, social coaching and sensitivity training. Each session gave insight on how to improve our campers’ experiences and ensure that everyone feels a part of the great communities we share.
During one session, Orlee Krass, the National Ramah Tikvah Network Coordinator and Matan’s Director of Education, emphasized that everyone has some sort of special need. Many individuals need extra support in some area; it may be a speech delay or an allergy or a physical disability. At the Tikvah training, I learned that disabilities need not hamper a camper’s experience.
We learned a particularly useful tool from Pamela Schuller, a URJ Regional Director of Youth Engagement, who taught that everyone benefits in a community when inclusion practices are put forth. She spoke about the comedic improvisational tool of saying “Yes, and…” instead of “No, but…” Instead of stifling a child with disabilities, how can we find a way to “go with the flow,” think on our feet, and find a new way to include the child? For the child who cannot stop jumping during tefillot, perhaps we include a jumping section in the service to get everybody moving. As a result, the whole community benefits as campers and staff members are able to stretch their legs and get focused for the next prayer. With a little creativity, we can help a child and his greater community embrace his disability instead of looking down on it.
As someone who is interested in working with children with special needs, I found the conference to be extremely resourceful and eye-opening. I love the idea that I can pursue a passion of mine and still remain within the Jewish community. In my work at Ramah Nyack this summer, I will look for ways to ensure that every member of my bunk and edah feels included and valued, regardless of whether a specific need has been identified. Furthermore, I will strive to take the lessons I learned at training and teach them to my fellow staff members so that we can create a welcoming and tolerant community for everyone.
Sarah Parkes is a third-year staff member at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack. She is entering her sophomore year at the University of Michigan, where she is studying psychology.