The Power of Inclusion, and Lessons for Rosh Hashanah

After nine years as a camper and counselor at Massad Bet (of blessed memory), and one year as the Program Director of Camp Mesorah, I thought I knew all I needed to know about sleep-away camps.

There were cool kids and nerdy kids. Fun counselors and those who, well, let’s just say it was the Seventies and call it a day (or night- a very late night).

As a grown up (hah!) and member of the senior management team at OHEL, I have suddenly found myself deeply invested in a movement that I could not have seen coming, but a movement that is nonetheless here to stay- one of great pride and a source of joy for our community.

OHEL’s Camp Kaylie takes the previously unheard of and makes it sparkle. Rather than having one or two specially designated bunks for children with special needs, Kaylie fully integrates these campers into nearly all aspects of camp life.

Sleeping in the same bunk. Eating at the same camp table. Sharing in camp cheers. Figuring out how to make it work in sports, robotics, Jewish learning.

Camp Kaylie is a laboratory for life. We ALL have needs. No one is “normal”. Everywhere we go we need to learn to interact with others who are different than us. Of course Mr. and Mrs. Kaylie are the heroes for their vision, but the participants in this lab for life- the typical and non-typical campers, the staff, and most especially the parents are to be celebrated for their belief in the goodness of the human spirit. And God bless them, there is a waiting list to get in.

I mentioned the previously unheard of fully integrated bunks. Here’s a note written to me by one of our top educators this summer:

“One of the boys that came for Kaylie Kids (the three day trial for younger children) asked me in front of a few special needs kids “where are the special needs kids? My mom told me we would be helping special needs kids.

So I told him that at Camp Kaylie there isn’t a separate bunk labeled “DD”(Developmentally Disabled)” or “Special Needs” . I explained that at Camp Kaylie everybody is equal, everybody can have fun, everybody deserves the same opportunities, and the boy said that since he may not know which kids need that extra love and encouragement he will make sure to be extra nice and encouraging to everybody.”

Want to bottle that? There’s your holy water right there… we as a people have found a new way to elevate our lives and the lives of others- even during our summer months of rest.

How about this letter from a mother of a “typical” camper?

“As the summer starts coming to a close, we just wanted to let you know what an outstanding experience our son had in Camp Kaylie. Going in, we knew that this would be a special camp, and that he had the right personality and background for it.. But when we came up on Visiting Day and he proudly introduced us to EVERY member of his bunk, making sure to include the special campers with an inside joke or extra smile, then we knew there was something very special going on.

The experience carried beyond the last day of camp: although our son has always been good-natured, when he came home he was just a little more cooperative, a little more thankful for things, a bit kinder to his brother… Camp Kaylie made a difference, and it shows.”

Or this letter, from a counselor who couldn’t believe his eyes- literally:

“I want to share with you two short stories that I observed over the summer which had a great impact on me, and I am sure on other people who were in similar situations.

The first story occurred on the first Friday of the summer during the KFL (Kaylie Football Tournament). From the start my team was looking like a disaster. We had just enough players in order to have a game, and most of them were not so excited to play. I learned that my best wide receiver on my team was extremely homesick and was thinking about missing the game in order to sit and do nothing. Another one of my players had never played a game of football before and had certainly never caught a pass. A third player who happened to be “D.D.” was pretty uncoordinated and didn’t really know how to play the game. Well, I wasn’t going to let any of these obstacles get in the way of them having a good time, so I huddled up everyone on the team and told them that we were definitely going to win – and we were going to have a great time as well. I went over the basic rules with the two boys on my team who didn’t really understand football and with that the game started.

The first game started off a little surprising. We started off with a lead and the campers were getting really into it. I started getting them pumped up and a few minutes into the game – the boy who was homesick forgot about all of his problems and he was really getting into the game. We won the first game and by the end the boys were all smiles. By the end, our team eventually won the entire tournament. However, the fact that we won was not what was amazing. What was amazing was how we won. The quarterback of my team was absolutely not shy about throwing the ball to campers who didn’t look like they could possibly catch. In fact he threw many passes to the boys who had never played football before – typical and “D.D.” alike. By the end of the day, one of the special needs campers on my team who probably never caught a pass in his life finished off the game with a catch in the end zone! Another camper who had just learned to play football that day caught a touchdown giving us the lead in the second game and bringing us to the championship. These boys were not super athletes. However, just a few days into camp they were given the confidence to perform under pressure. And they succeeded more than I could have ever imagined. At first I thought that my quarterback was a righteous Peyton Manning. However, as camp went on I realized that he was just a regular kid who knew that the right thing to do was to pass the ball.

I would like to share with you one final incident. This one occurred during the horseback riding activity early on in the summer. While my campers were taking turns riding on the horses, one of the workers approached me. He wanted to know exactly what Camp Kaylie is all about. I explained to him it’s about integration and I went into a detailed discussion with him about the exact dynamics in camp. I explained to him about the various ratios. One of my typical campers jumped up and said that our bunk did not have that ratio. Then, he remarked, I don’t even know who in our bunk is D.D. The worker was a little bit confused. “How could he not know who has special needs?” he whispered to me. I responded to him that this is exactly what integration was all about. A week and a half into the summer, and my campers could not figure out who in my bunk was “typical” and who was “D.D”

These are lessons to be learned not from our day schools, nor our high schools, nor yeshivot or seminaries in Israel, but from our summer camps.

Now, how wonderful would the world be if all us adults acted that way? Even for a day. I’ll take just one day.

Shana Tova to all.

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