Tag Archives: Camp staff

Cold Feet

joelLater this month, my fifteen-year-old son, Jonah, is off to Camp B’Nai Brith (CBB) in the Laurentians, about an hour north of Montreal. He’ll stay for a full session, three weeks, longer by far than he’s stayed before. Naturally, I’m feeling some anxiety on his behalf. Or projecting, as my wife Cynthia calls it. She has a point. The idea of being in an isolated place for a prolonged period with strangers and nature (i.e. mosquitoes and a lack of air condition and Wi-Fi) has never been my idea of fun. That’s why my case of cold feet will be getting colder as the day of Jonah’s departure approaches.  It’s in my nature, as a person and a writer, to find inspirational quotes that may be appropriate to any given situation. Inevitably, though, the quotes end up being inadequately inspirational.  Like this one from the British writer Julian Barnes: “Time… give us enough time and our best supported decisions will seem wobbly…”

I also find myself wondering how much Jonah really wants to go. Projecting again, no doubt. In any case this kind of information would probably be hard to pry out of any teenager. Still, I know kids must get cold feet about sleep-away camp, too. Cynthia enjoyed her time as a camper and later a counselor, but she also remembers her decades-old “Y” camp song word for word. The first couple of lines, alone, are a model of adolescent ambivalence: “I go to YCC, so pity me. There’s not a boy in the vicinity.”

Measuring Jonah’s mixed feelings can be tricky. Jonah has autism and he can have a hard time making it clear how he’s feeling. Cynthia and I know him well enough to read between the lines of his sometimes off-topic conversation. But we also look to his behavior for unspoken clues. The other day, for instance, my sister, Marilyn, and I took Jonah shopping to pick up some of the extra clothing he needs for camp. When he and I got home we showed everything we bought to his mother and then I put them on his bed so he could put them away as he does with all his clothing. We’d bought some pretty cool t-shirts and shorts so I figured he’d want to wear them till he left for camp in a few weeks. The next day though I couldn’t find any of the things we’d bought. I looked for them in every drawer. I quizzed his mother. Finally, I did what I should have done in the first place. I asked Jonah where all his stuff had gone.

“In my bag,” he said.

“What bag?” I asked.

“The one for CBB.” And, indeed, there they were. All stuffed into one of the gym bags he will be taking with him to camp. It seems he can hardly wait.

His keenness is reassuring. Never more so than last weekend when Jonah, Cynthia, and I visited the CBB’s pre-camp Open House. Jonah was happy to see everyone, including counselors and staff he didn’t know. If my son has a philosophy, it’s cornier than mine but a lot more, well, inspirational. Summed up, it’s something like: “A stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet.” But he was really excited to see the counselors who were at CBB for his shorter stay last year. In fact, he seemed to have nicknames for all of them. “Hi, Quiet Wyatt,” Jonah shouted to one young man, who shouted back, “Hey Jonah, great to see you back!” He hardly looked like the quiet type, which was what made the nickname funny, of course. “Max and the Yaks” was what Jonah told me he calls the fellow who runs the camp’s circus program.

Jonah loves animals, especially unusual ones, so when he met his unit head, Mike, the two immediately hit it off, discussing animals from Mike’s native Australia. I volunteered kangaroos and received a look of disappointment from both Jonah and Mike. Mike seems to have had his fill of kangaroos as the iconic but hopelessly clichéd symbol of his country. Instead, he provided Jonah with a great deal of information about the platypus. “You know it’s one of the only mammals that lays eggs,” Mike said. Then he told Jonah it was from the small family of animals known as monotremes. “Like horses are equines and cows are bovines?” Jonah asked. “That’s right, mate.” Mike seemed to know just how to talk to Jonah, which was reassuring. Cynthia also found out that in Australia he was a teacher and had a class of kids with autism. Driving home, I already felt my feet warming up. Jonah and I also brainstormed about nicknames for his newest stranger/friend.  So far, though, we’ve only settled on what Jonah won’t call him—Kangaroo Mike.

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Posted on July 18, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Six Words

06.18-21.14 Jewish CampsDo you think you could sum up your camp experience in just six words? If not your entire experience, what about a summer? How about a session? I’m sorry if it sounds like a pretty impossible task. (To be honest, I completely understand.) After all how do you sum up weeks (or years) of memories in just six words?

You see I pose this question to get at a larger question … how do we tell stories at camp?  How do we use these stories to build friendships? One of the absolute best things we do at camp is help kids build friendships with one another. Same thing goes for our staff too … ask any counselor why they come back to camp summer after summer, and rarely will they say the food. Sometimes these friendships burn hot and fast for a summer, and sometimes they last an entire lifetime. Regardless of their longevity, how our kids create these friendships is almost as important as the friendships themselves. Staff, counselors, specialists … friendships are what keep everybody coming back to camp summer after summer.

However these friendships don’t just magically appear out of thin air. We create them by sharing stories of ourselves. This can be really difficult for even the most seasoned camper and staff, let alone new ones. Last week I wanted to get our supervisors thinking about the importance behind sharing stories, so I asked if they could sum up one of their camp experiences in just six words. This particular project, which is based off the Six Word Memoir on Jewish Life project from Reboot and Smith Magazine, takes an inherently Jewish concept (asking questions and telling stories) and re-imagines it in a way that would challenge even the most Twitter-savvy person.

Some of them were funny, “New Facebook Profile Picture. Shabbat Shalom!” Some of them were personal “Felt Invisible. Cried. Found A Home” and all were in some way universal “Here For Summer, Home For Life.” 25 supervisors participated in this program, and I felt like I got a glimpse into a hundred different camp stories. All it took was six little words. What’s yours?

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Posted on July 3, 2014

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Who Are You and What Have You Done With My Child?

0226_110811-FJC_x46“Who are you and what have you done with my child?

You might be surprised how many parents of teens feel like asking this question at one point or another. They’ve watched their child learn to walk, laugh, talk, and jump … play with friends and come home breathless and excited.

Then one day, that same child seems short tempered, or quiet and withdrawn, or adamant about social interests, and you realize you’ve never seen this person before…or so it seems.

How would you like it if your teens could be at their best all the time? What if they actually had the ability to look at their negative thinking and direct their attention to the more positive aspects of life?

This may sound like some sort of fictional dream, but it is possible. Even probable, given certain elements injected into their lives. In fact, your teen really can be at their very best most or all the time, benefit in every situation they run into, and make positive decisions for their lives.

They can.

That gripping fear you feel in your gut can subside as you watch your teenager thrive.

Teens are looking for guidance, mentoring, quality life skills, and deep meaningful relationships, in spite of the vibe they put out for their parents. They just don’t have the emotional or psychological tools to develop these things without guidance. And since their developmental process includes learning to separate from their parent’s protection, they have to find guidance elsewhere.

Most teens, when faced with the changes in their bodies, emotions, varied and intense responsibilities, and social pressures feel unequipped to manage them well. If your teen seems difficult to recognize, it just could be that he’s doing the best he can in a strange and uncomfortable world.

As a mentor to clients in this age group, I’ve heard from the majority of them through the years that what they want is deep, meaningful, and rewarding relationships, but what they feel is isolation. They crave friendships that offer value and support, and stimulate personal growth.

But they need and want to feel accepted to handle the judgment and social pressures that comes with this stage of life.

Instinctively, they want to be the best they can, make the right decisions, and live a life that’s positive and satisfying.

How do they get there?

Mentors

What it comes down to is mentors. Where does a teenager find mentors he can trust to lead him to make solid and safe decisions, develop social skills for meaningful relationships, and the life skills to manage responsibilities? Too often, he turns to his friends, who are in the same boat he is. Sometimes he may turn to a friend or relative, who may or may not be equipped to offer the guidance he needs.

Professional mentors like me have the education, training, and insight to provide mature but relevant companionship and guidance, and can make a real difference for your teen – if you have one in your area.

Camp Mentors

But another readily available and powerful option is camp. Camp provides opportunities through mentors for kids and teens to experience the very things they yearn for in a safe and familiar environment. They come to feel total acceptance there, which gives them the energy to develop deeper skills. They learn:

  • to understand the value of being part of a team
  • to make positive decisions that benefit them and their team.
  • to recognize the qualities in people that will benefit their own lives and can be the foundation for rewarding and healthy friendships; and also the traits in others that are not valuable to their lives
  • to be accountable to others
  • to set goals, and to work at achieving them
  • resilience, and how to keep getting back up and trying, till they succeed

Kids and teens who are fortunate enough to return to camp year after year continue to build upon these skills each summer. They learn from the mentors placed in their lives then eventually move forward as mentors themselves.

They grow in leadership, accountability, placing the welfare of others above their own wants, and skills to sustain healthy relationships in the long term.

They emerge confident, capable, and considerate of others, with the seeds of leadership growing within them.

Sound too good to be true?  Send your kid to camp a few years then let’s compare notes.

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Posted on June 24, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Togetherness Squared

Camp_Ramah_0480_IMG_0134For the last four summers, whenever my wife, Cynthia, and I have put our son, Jonah, on the bus to sleepaway camp we have experienced one of those rare moments couples share: we not only find ourselves on the same page, we find ourselves on the exact same line on that page. We see in each other’s expressions an identical mix of anxiety and relief. We are concerned about how our son will fare, of course, but we’re also free. Yes, to turn this into a very bad joke, we are free at last!

Still, our particular sense of emancipation has to do with the fact that Jonah, who has autism, is a constant in our everyday life. As we are in his. (I’m sure Jonah, once he’s on that bus, is equally relieved to be on his own and free of us.) Every member of a special needs family is well-acquainted with the joys and stresses of what is, after all, an extremely heightened kind of inseparability. Call it Togetherness Squared. All of which may explain why when I first talked to Sid Milech, director of Montreal’s YM-YWHA Harry Bronfman Y Country Camp (YCC), about a new program he’s inaugurating this summer called the Special Needs Family Camp, I had my doubts.

The program, one of the first of its kind in Canada, will make the facilities of the YCC, located in Quebec’s scenic Laurentian Mountains, available to special needs families for a long weekend in mid-August, after the camp’s regular summer sessions are done. Every family will have a cabin to themselves and be able to participate, as families, in the camp experience. That includes the special needs kids themselves, who will be accompanied by a “buddy” provided by YCC, the siblings of the special needs kid, who will participate with their peers in a wide range of camp activities, and, finally, their parents. Again I have to confess, this sounded to me, at first hearing, like a remake of The Shininga family all alone in a cabin the woods. Still, the more Milech explained how the program works the better this kind of family togetherness started to sound.

For one thing, parents will have a lot of time to themselves during the long weekend, time to enjoy the camp’s surrounding and time to spend not worrying, for a change, about what their kids are doing and how to structure their time. Milech is still assembling his staff for the session, hiring “buddies” and counselors. He also has a psychologist and a Montreal rabbi, with a background in special needs, on board. It’s the best of both worlds, Milech explained when we talked. “This is meant to be a family holiday, a supervised holiday, true. But, most of all, it is intended to give everyone a break,” he said.

Milech’s Special Needs Family Camp is closely patterned after Tikvah Family Camp, a program run by Camp Ramah in New York’s Poconos region.  Tikvah Family Camp started six years ago and Adena Sternthal has been its director for the last five years. It also takes place in mid-August, after the regular camp session is done. That’s when Sternthal makes room for 15 to 20 families, primarily families with kids, between four and 13, on the autism spectrum. Sternthal has come to appreciate how much Tikvah Family Camp means to its participants.

“Visiting theme parks and other more typical vacations aren’t always easy for families with kids on the spectrum and for a lot of our families this is their only real vacation. The parents are always telling me this is what they talk about all year long,” Sternthal pointed out. “They also tell me how amazed they are to have the chance to see their kids do things they never thought they could do, like being out on the rope course or enjoying the water. For our part, we want the special needs kids to experience things they haven’t experienced before.  We will take them out on the water, in a rowboat, for example, and if it takes two hours to do it, to make them comfortable, we’ll wait. We’re not going anywhere.”

One of the unexpected consequences of Tikvah Family Camp, and Milech expects this to be the case in his Special Needs Family Camp too, is the way parents from these families bond, develop their own unique kind of togetherness. “We provide them with connections with other parents who are in the same boat,” Sternthal added.

Then she related a recent anecdote that illustrates the impression Tikvah Family Camp made on one family, in particular. “Last year was their second summer with us and at the end of the weekend, after everyone had said goodbye, this family came to my office and asked if they could speak to me. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what happened that I didn’t know about, am I in trouble? Instead, they handed me an envelope. Inside was cash and a lot of it. They said they wanted me to have this money so another family who can’t afford the camp can come next year. I became a mess at that point. So when you ask me how the families feel about this camp, there’s your answer.

For more information on Montreal’s YCC Special Needs Family Camp, visit their website here.

For more information on the Tikvah Family Camp, visit their website here.

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Posted on June 11, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Our Common Purpose

staffcircleOur staff have arrived for training and summer is soon underway! All year long I work hard to recruit staff, interview them, and hire the most exceptional applicants to work with our campers. This process comes to a climax on the first day of staff training week, when all the individuals who I have hired over the course of the year arrive to camp and gather in our Commons. There we circle up, and I get to see the team I have worked to form.

I love that moment when I look around the circle of staff for the first time. All of these faces that I know from the interviews that I conducted, along with little facts about their lives, goals, and interests. I know them all as individuals and now during this training week, I will work to transform this a group of unique individuals into a strong, united staff team. It is a phenomenal process, one that is only topped by the arrival of our campers.

I can’t wait to see how these staff members grow over the course of the summer and work to change the lives of our campers. They have so many talents to share, stories to tell, and skills with which to enrich the camper experience. For some staff members, this summer is a goal they have been working towards for years as a camper that grew up at camp. For others, this is an entirely new experience and one they are taking on with an open mind, open heart. But no matter our various backgrounds, we are all here for a common purpose – the kids.

We are really looking forward to the arrival of our campers so that we can work to change their lives in positive ways! I once attended a seminar where the presenter said something to the effect that without our campers, camp staff would simply be a collection of very trained, talented, and enthusiastic adults with nothing to do. As much fun as we are having this week, the magic isn’t created without our campers. So enjoy your final days of camp preparation at home and make sure to fill out all of your pending camp forms! We are waiting for your children and can’t wait to have the best summer ever.

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Posted on June 9, 2014

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Camouflaged Education

photo2How could I try to hide in plain sight? Well if I was well camouflaged I might use any combination of materials, coloration or illumination for concealment. In the wild I might do this by making myself hard to see in my environment or by disguising myself as something else. In terms of education I might do a great job by simply not announcing what I am doing as educational. I was thinking about this during a recent conference for the Goodman Camping Initiative for Modern Israel History. Thanks to generous support of the Lillian and Larry Goodman Foundations with contributions from The Marcus Foundation and the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the iCenter brought together representatives from 27 camps to have their staff explore how they might animate Israel in their camps for their campers.

It was in this context that one of the fellows remarked, “I used to think that there are Jewish camps that taught about Judaism and other camps that were fun. Our camp is a fun camp. And now I get it. You are asking us to make learning about Israel fun.” All of these mostly college aged fellows came together with many Israeli counterparts to enhance the Israel educational programming at their camps. The goal is to get them serious content through activities and materials in a way that they can customize to fit naturally in their camp environment. I am confident that fellows get it. Israel education can happen with rich content and subtle complexity, but at camp it needs to be camouflaged as fun.

Camouflaged education might be the essence of Shavuot, which begins tonight. The premise of our getting the Torah was our promise first to observe the laws of the Torah, and only afterward to study these laws. We received the Torah at Sinai because we said, “na’aseh v’nishma- We will do and we will hear/understand.” (Exodus 24:7) If we needed to study it in a formal setting first we might never have committed ourselves to the venture. There is a lot of anti-Israel rhetoric out there today, especially on our college campuses, and it gives me peace of mind to know that we can create a utopia of Jewish camp in which Israel education can hide in plain sight.

Posted on June 3, 2014

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What Makes a Summer Camp “Amazing?”

friendsAmazing camps are made by amazing people. Not amenities.

There is a list of the 50 Most Amazing Summer Camps in the U.S. making the rounds on the internet. It is posted on a site about education degrees that has no credentials. And the list offers no criteria.  One might think I am a little bitter since none of the camps FJC works with are on it. No, not at all. Just disappointed that such a thoughtless list would garner so much attention (all my Facebook friends can stop sending me the list now, thanks for thinking of me…)

I skimmed the 50 blurbs, they all talk about majestic mountains, facilities, and camp amenities (come on—this isn’t a hotel peeps!). Where is the talk about the soul of the camp? A camp can have the most incredible facilities, but that does not mean that the director and staff are going to have the same values and goals that you do. Skimming through, not one talked about staff training, mentorship, or role modeling. Swap the horseback riding for the pristine baseball diamond and they seem pretty interchangeable to me.

I would hope every place you send your kid—school, camp, art class, football field—is a safe environment where they can grow and try new things. But I suggest that as you start exploring camp options for your child, you delve deeper into the magic of each camp.  Ask the director how they make that magic happen. It is in the how and why they make that happen that makes a camp truly “amazing.” Dig in and find out what makes each camp special.  I promise you—it is in the people—not the fancy rock wall.

When you talk to camp directors, you should tell them about your child and what type of environment makes him thrive. Ask how they promote community. What type of staff they hire.  How they train the staff. What values they promote throughout the summer. I promise that there is a perfect match out there for you and your child. As parents, we sometimes get caught up in the window dressing. Wanting to find the absolute best for our kids. So, take a step back and remind yourself what “best” really means for your family. It is hard to make “lifelong friends” with kids that don’t have the same values as yours.

Want more tips on how to find the perfect camp? Download our guide.

And visit One Happy Camper and BunkConnect for ways to make camp affordable.

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Posted on May 9, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

An Unknown Benefit of Camp for the Director

©Next Exit Photography www.nextexitphotographyThere are plenty of reasons I became a social worker and a camp director within the Jewish community. Recently, there have been a chain of events that have shown me that I had no idea what the true benefits of my job choice would be. I mean, I knew I was pretty fulfilled with my life; I enjoy waking up to go to work and feel somewhat valuable in the daily life grind. But there have been instances recently that have led me to believe that this job I chose might have this incredible side effect: this job gives me HOPE.

Hope, as defined by good old Webster’s, is: “a desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment.”

Hope is perhaps the single greatest benefit that could be bestowed upon another person, and this job allows me to hope so very much. There are a lot of negatives in a daily CNN viewing – people seem to be pretty messed up on this planet.  here are so many people fighting for freedoms, against violence and just for the right to gain more education that it is actually heart-breaking. I look around at times and wonder: WHAT IS GOING ON? People can’t shop at a mall safely.  Countries are maiming and killing their own. Schools spend so much time trying to answer to the state that they don’t get an opportunity to create a love of learning. I could go on and on … and sometimes, for just moments, I do. I get so discouraged. It all feels like it is never going to get better.

But then it happens. I talk to one of my staff members from the summer and I realize that there is so much ahead. I know that working with children allows most people to gain some wistful thoughts about the future, but I am not talking about that. I am talking about being so blessed as to meet the next generation of people who are going to make this world a better place. I am talking about the letters I get to write to City Year, Avodah, Teach for America and other year-long volunteer programs that my staff are hoping to get into. I speak to them and they talk about taking a year off to work in organic farming, volunteer for an environmental company, or take a year to live in another country to educate people and gain knowledge about what is “out there.” These 20-somethings are not getting arrested for DUIs or creating havoc, they are not blasé about the world around them; they are creating change and working towards the betterment of others.

As camping professionals, we use the term “role model” for our staff.  We talk with them about how the kids need to look up to them. But I don’t think it ever dawned on me that they are my role models too. These young people are what keep me positive and aware. They inform me about things that I sometimes have stopped paying attention to in my cynical views of the world. These young adults keep me HOPEFUL. They don’t let the world beat them down; they fight it, they know they can make a difference, and they give me back my idealism. Who would have thought it? I spend hours in a year creating an orientation for them to know how to work with children and all along they are giving me one of life’s greatest gifts just by being themselves.

Whether it be a video sent to me where ten of my former staff are celebrating Shabbat together and just wanted me to know that camp made a difference, or a staff member from 20 years ago posts a Facebook message that they are working with children who learn differently and that camp made the difference for them to chose that career, or even when I reconnect with my own peers from my days of being a camp counselor and I realize that, well, these people are the good ones, the ones who are doing things that make this world a more productive, compassionate, and better place. My staff call during their own time to let me know that two campers are having an issue on-line and how can they help. They ask me about what the adulthood thing is really like and are there any secrets to making it all work. They care for and about each other and others. They make me proud. With that pride comes a realization that something good is happening in these summer homes. We are not merely helping families and children through their search for a Jewish connection or a place where kids can be better than they get to be in their everyday lives.  We are allowing these staff to create glimmers of positivity.  They are learning and being and creating HOPE.

Posted on April 24, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Camp All Day, Every Day

colemanA cookie is just a cookie, but a Newton is fruit and cake.

A camp is just a camp, but MY CAMP IS THE BEST THING EVER.

It doesn’t have the same ring, but you get the idea.

[Colemanites] get together during the year.  The Clergy Advisory Board gathers to talk education and development.  The Olim Fellows meet to learn about social justice, Reform Judaism, and to explore other camps in the URJ family.  Cornerstone Fellows gather to learn how to make great programming even better with camps from all over North America, and brainstorming how to impact their work at Coleman when gathering in “Camproom.”  Retreats.  NFTY.  Facebook.  Instagram.  Camp Shabbat.  Bar/Bat Mitzvah weekends.  Shabbat dinners.  The emails – so many emails.

[Coleman] people find time to see [Coleman] people.

At the end of February, a collection of Coleman people met in Atlanta for two days.  This form of Coleman reunion was targeted and focused.  Like last year’s MasheJew meeting, we were developing curriculum.  This year, we did some editing of the units from last year, and added in two more units.  We also did a series of Tefillah workshops that could fill an entire summer of Kavannah (our name for our counselor- and programmer-led programming), come from my work at camp and at The Davis Academy (#NADIV) and will be one of my sessions when I serve on Cornerstone Faculty in May.   We’re working on developing a program called “Hot ShoTz” (ShoTz is the abbreviation in Hebrew used to describe a service leader) which will teach people in our camp community leadership skills and service-leading methodology, allowing them to step up, and to shine in a new light.

It was a long 25 hours, Shabbat-long in length, but stuffed with beautiful, holy work. Faculty clergy, programmers, unit heads, our Rosh Mishlachat (Head of the Israeli Delegation), one of camp’s specialist coordinators, and year-round staff collaborated on all-camp programming, on Tefillah, and on unit specific work.

We’re not done with the work.  There will be more emails.  There will be teaching and learning and a summer of experimenting with new, exciting programming.  And I’m thankful to know that there are so many people who are working toward another amazing summer of programming.  This is the good that comes from thinking about camp all day, every day.

And if you want to be a Hot ShoTz, Coleman staff, you know where to find me.

Where [Coleman/ite] = [Your Camp’s Name/people]

Posted on April 8, 2014

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The Childhood Friendship That Set My Life’s Course

This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

Copy of 110707.CampJRF.-114Everyone has a passion and a calling. Some people find this when they are in college; others not until they have retired from a career that they enjoyed (but didn’t love).

For me, it was in third grade.

I was in the bathroom and there was screaming that was not really words, but utterances, from behind another stall door. I could hear crying and knew something was not going well. I asked if someone needed help and there was just banging on the door. I was (and still am) a short person, so I crawled under the stall … and there was Sylvia.

Sylvia was in the self-contained special education classroom in my elementary school. In 1978, this was the way schools were set up and mainstream kids like me had very little interaction with kids in the self-contained classes. Sylvia was what we now would refer to as moderately developmentally delayed; she had some verbal skills but no real connections and no ability to make a sentence. There she was … just standing there … all ready to get out of the bathroom stall, but she had accidentally locked herself in. I unlocked it. We went to wash our hands and then it dawned on me that I should walk her back to her classroom to let the teacher know what had happened, since she was so distressed just moments earlier. I walked her to the classroom, told the teacher what happened and went to leave. As I did, Sylvia ran up and hugged me. I felt great about what had happened and moved on with my day.

Later that week, we were on the playground at recess and this boy, Marcus, came up and hugged me and told me that I was his friend now since I was Sylvia’s friend. Marcus was nearly six feet tall in fifth grade and also had developmental challenges, but he was able to communicate more effectively than Sylvia. Marcus just hugged me … every single day on the playground for that entire year. And every single day on the playground the year after, until he graduated and went to the junior high.

Maybe it was because I have some connection with people who want to be understood, maybe it was because I love to communicate with people in any way and felt like Sylvia must really need someone to help her to communicate, maybe it was because I liked it when I felt important by helping another person. Whatever the reason, there it was … my love for people with learning challenges and developmental differences. As clear as day, in third grade.

I continued this path as I grew older: I volunteered for kids with special needs in my town, befriended the kids in camp that no one else really wanted to hang out with, and even got a scholarship in senior year of high school for pursuing a career in special education. I went off to college and thought I would be a teacher, but once there decided that social work was more my style. All through college I coached five different sports in the Special Olympics (where one athlete asked me if I knew that, even though I did not have special needs, I was the worst player on our basketball team … and I was the coach), was head of the Students for Special Needs program, and did other volunteer work. I found an AMAZING Jewish camp to work at for children who had challenges, and found a mentor there that was inspiring. Ten years later, when he left, I got his job running the camp and continued to do so for about a decade. Now I am blessed to be working in another camp that is all about inclusion, and special needs inclusion is one part of this.

I would guess that I have worked with over a thousand young people and adults with special needs – all types of special needs – in a camping setting and I must tell you that it NEVER once dawned on me that this was a big deal. I mean, my sister loved to work with clothing and went into fashion, my brother loved to make deals and became an attorney, and I loved to help people so I went into social work with a focus on special needs. I know this will sound cliché, but I learn more from someone with challenges than they will ever learn from me. I get to be there for a family when they think no one is going to “get them” and their situation. I learn about acceptance of people’s strengths and weaknesses and that it is ok to have both. I gain an appreciation for things that are going well and a tolerance for things when they are not.

I know one thing for sure: no matter what I do for my entire career, the most important thing I ever did was crawl under a bathroom stall and unlock a door for my friend Sylvia.

 

Posted on February 25, 2014

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