Joel Yanofsky is the author of Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.
We figured we were all set. The fellow at the music store near our house assured my wife Cynthia that someone on staff could give my then 12-year-old son, Jonah, guitar lessons. But when she added that Jonah has special needs, he quickly retracted the offer. “We don’t do that,” he said. There was nothing particularly new about this response. Jonah has been disinvited to more than his fair share of parties and had play dates cancelled at the last minute with lame excuses. It doesn’t take long, as the parent of a child with special needs, autism in Jonah’s case, to internalize the word “no.” You’re continually coming to terms with the things your child will probably miss out on. Things other parents take for granted: like finding your child a guitar teacher.Meanwhile, that “no” inside you thickens like a callus. Still, when the rejection comes from outside, especially from someone who doesn’t know your child, the hurt is mixed with an element of surprise. The sting feels fresh all over again.
Of course, the word “yes,” when you do hear it, also comes as a surprise and is all the more gratifying for it. We’d thought about sending Jonah to summer sleep-away camp for a few years, but with no real success. Then, last year, we met Josh Pepin, the director of the Montreal chapter of Camp B’nai Brith and that all changed. Jonah spent a week at the CBB sleep-away camp, an hour’s drive north of Montreal, and the experience was so good, he intends to return this summer for two weeks.
To hear Pepin tell it, his accepting attitude is just part of the camp’s longstanding tradition of diversity, of integrating all kinds of kids. “If you look at the mission of CBB, our special needs program fits it perfectly,” says Pepin, a big, gregarious man in his thirties, who you can’t imagine saying no to anyone, “Our idea is that kids, no matter their background, or where they come from, what language they speak, what socioeconomic background they come from or how they function, deserve a summer camping experience. I’m no professional in the special needs milieu, but I know we have to keep integrating special needs kids. Not just for them but for all our campers and our staff. Kids like Jonah are such a beautiful part of our camp.”
Pepin never went to sleep away camp himself, not as a camper – “I’m a mama’s boy,” he confesses – but when he was 18, he lost a bet with a friend and ended up as a counselor at CBB. He continued to work there summers for a decade, met his best friends, and also his wife there. After taking on a few other jobs in Montreal’s Jewish community, he came back to CBB as director in 2010. Along with the emphasis on diversity at CBB, Jewish identity is paramount for Pepin. “That’s why we exist,” Pepin says, “to offer kids opportunities that they may not otherwise have if they don’t go to Jewish day schools or belong to a synagogue. As camp director, I consider myself an informal educator. And I have an opportunity, here, to shape young Jewish minds and identities.”
He also gets the chance to say “yes” a lot more than “no.” For which my family is grateful.
Incidentally, we found a guitar teacher for Jonah. He also turned out to be Jonah’s shadow at CBB last summer. I’ll be writing more about him and about the importance of shadows in an upcoming blog.
Rabbi Isaac Saposnik is the director of Camp JRF in South Sterling, PA.
Two summers ago, I met David for the first time. Before he arrived in camp, we spoke with his parents about his Autism, how it might impact his experience at camp, and what their goals were for him – both during the summer and beyond. They were incredibly open and realistic, and we were upfront about what we could offer. And while we all hoped for the best, I must admit that I entered the summer with a bit of trepidation, worried that we might not be able to live up to all of our expectations.
Boy, was I in for a surprise.
David jumped head first into the camp experience. He participated in all of the activities, loved the food, and always had a smile on his face. He shared his love of basketball and brought us the tradition of chocolate breakfast (with thanks to our friends at Camp JCA Shalom). A week or so into the session, I showed up in our teatron (theater) to hear David talk with fifty of his peers – our ninth and tenth graders – about autism. We knew his mitzvah project had been on the topic and that he had spoken about it in other places; he came into the summer wanting to share it with us.
Our campers are incredibly thoughtful, kind, and amazingly aware that everyone is different and has their own gifts to bring to the community. Even so, surrounded by a group of teens, I was worried that, after a great first week, David’s positive experience could end when he stepped up to the microphone. And then he began to speak … and you could feel the teens’ excitement. There was laughter at the right times, good and thoughtful questions, and, when he finished speaking, thunderous applause. As everyone got up to leave, I watched David giving high fives, smiles, and huge bear hugs to his friends.
Even David would tell you that kids with autism often have a hard time making friends. But in just three short weeks, he had made incredible friends. He kept in touch with them all year. Last summer, he counted down the minutes until his best friend, who is a year older than him, returned to camp from his trip to Israel. And he got a letter from a friend who had other plans for the summer and said the thing he would miss most about camp was David.
Jewish camp – with values like derekh eretz (character) and kehillah (community) – is powerful. Surrounded by their peers, kids build relationships that they couldn’t imagine at home. The power of camp is that it allows kids to truly become their best selves, no matter how hard that might seem the rest of the year. After this past summer, David’s mom sent us a note: “We are so happy that David has a place he can go and feel comfortable, make friends while being himself – Camp JRF is his home away from home. We believe his camp experience is preparing him in so many ways and we are grateful beyond words to you and your staff for giving him the opportunity.”
To tell you the truth, I’m grateful to her for giving us the opportunity. Learning from, laughing with, and just knowing David is truly a blessing. We are lucky to have him as part of our camp family.
Joel Yanofsky is a writer and author of “Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.”
The letter my son, Jonah, sent us from sleep-away camp last summer was pretty much what you’d expect from any kid getting used to his first few days and nights away from home. He told us about passing his swimming test and about the trouble he got into when he didn’t pay attention. He also complained about some of the meals. “The food here is good but it’s not great. Please take me to East Side Mario’s when I get back because I don’t like the pasta here,” he wrote. “I had the salad instead.”
Of course, I recognize that this letter, including the fact that it has been proudly displayed on our refrigerator since August, couldn’t be more of a cliché. But then, my wife, Cynthia, and I live for clichés. We cherish the mundane, the average, the ordinary, all the things other parents take for granted. That’s because our son, who is 14 now, has autism.
He was diagnosed when he was almost four, labeled high-functioning. Over the last decade, we’ve learned to accept some of his differences and appreciate others. It’s what we have come to call The New Normal. Still, sometimes, it’s The Plain Old Normal we crave: like Jonah learning to swing on monkey bars a few years ago or celebrating his bar mitzvah last year.
The decision to send him to sleep-away camp for a week was a big step in The Plain Old Normal’s direction. Cynthia argued for it; I had my doubts. In part, because I never went to camp myself. My parents moved out of the city to the suburbs when I was five and they were convinced I was as close to nature there as I needed to be. Mostly, though, I was concerned that sleep-away camp was an environment where Jonah would not fit in, one that would spotlight his difficulties with being independent and making friends.
Fortunately, Cynthia, a camper all through her youth, won the argument. She saw Jonah’s week at Camp B’nai Brith, located in Lantier, Quebec, an hour north of Montreal, as an ordinary rite of passage. And while we did make some special accommodations with the cooperation of Camp B’nai Brith – like having a shadow accompany Jonah or having him stay for only a week – Jonah was, in the end, just another kid in a bunk full of kids missing home and having fun. He participated in the same things the other kids did – from Shabbat dinner to getting up, for a second or two, on water skis. He also turned out to be a popular bunkmate, celebrated for his skill at making fun of his counselors. If it took him a while to adjust to the food, that was, we realized, to be expected. If he now insists on going back to Camp B’nai Brith for two weeks this summer, well, that’s what I’d call perfectly normal.