Jumping into the Deep End

There are professions, there are jobs, and there are fields that you go into because it matches everything you value. I am a Jewish communal professional — I’ve been a camp counselor and unit head, a youth group director, a therapist and a middle school guidance counselor. I am constantly overwhelmed that people allow me into the most private and intimate parts of their lives. They trust me to listen and be supportive during some of their most vulnerable times, such as my job at URJ Camp Coleman.

My role during camp is as the Inclusion Coordinator. We work to prepare our staff for “in loco parentis” (in the place of a parent). Our focus prior to campers arriving is to train college-aged staff to take all campers, include them in the daily routine and help them acclimate to new environments. Adapting to this new environment can be difficult for all children with the added layer of complexity for children with an autism spectrum diagnosis. We are lucky that there is a structure of support for counselors at camp. This year I was brought in to help a bunk of 13-year-old boys — the ones who would be starting 8th grade in the fall. We had a new camper, M, who hadn’t shared his diagnosis of autism with anyone else in his bunk. It was a bumpy first few days for a child who is a rule follower and would be frustrated with others when they didn’t do their job during Nikayon (cabin cleanup) or follow the rules of Gaga (a dodgeball-like game). The counselors sought help. After a conversation with his mom, the two cabin counselors and I met with M and talked about how things were going overall for him at camp. He shared with us that he has “a little bit” of autism and things are hard for him sometimes. We discussed the benefits of him sharing this with the rest of the boys in his bunk to help them understand him better.

One of the 19-year-old bunk counselors learned a great deal from working with M. This is what he said in reflection

Giving M the opportunity to discuss with his bunkmates how his disabilities affect him completely changed the dynamic of the bunk. The other campers were eager to help M and were almost instantly more compassionate and inclusive with their behavior toward M. Giving M the space to use his own voice to talk about what he deals with every day in a meeting with the other boys allowed him to articulate what he wanted the other campers and his counselors to understand about him, and what steps we all should take to help him stay calm and happy.

We emailed and called M’s mom to let her know about the conversations in the bunk and she had to take our word that it had gone well and that he was loving camp.  A week later, we found a letter that didn’t have postage at camp. We had to open it to find who it was from; it was one that M wrote to his mom. Finding this letter gave us a chance to call her that day to confirm the positive outcome.

Dear Mom,

A lot has happened since I last wrote to you. It is currently the 5th day of camp and there is a lot to tell you. For the first four days, my difficulty with the cabin mates that I told you about got much worse. It made me live each day in misery, and every time we talked about the wonders of camp, I cried because I didn’t have the same experience. I cried myself to sleep for three nights straight, and I had no idea how I’d get through the whole month. After those days though, everything got much better. We recently discussed my Autism with the rest of the cabin, and now, everyone is finally treating me with respect. Everything is forgiven, and now I can finally love camp. I will write to you again soon. Love, *M*

We got an email from mom after M returned home from camp:

My boy is home!  He’s definitely taller and does not appear to have starved, not that I was too worried about that part.  Most importantly, he has returned with a smile on his face and a whole lot more independence and confidence – the true extent of which I know will be seen in time.  He’s filling our ears with stories of all the fun he had, his favorite parts (the lake), some friends he has made, and only a smidgen of what caused him some difficulty.  When I asked if he wants to go back next summer, I got the answer I was praying for, “Yes!!!”.  In truth, I would have been ok with a “Maybe”, but I am overjoyed to have received the emphatic reply that I got.

I cannot begin to thank you all enough or adequately put into words my appreciation for helping and supporting M and for giving him a truly amazing month!  It would have been so easy for any one of us to have thrown in the towel that first week.  I could have jumped in the car and picked him up, you could have asked that I come pick him up or M could have wanted me to come pick him up.  But none of us took that approach, which might very well have been the easier choice at one point or another.  Instead, M and I were given the gift of support and the chance to learn for himself but also to teach others an invaluable lesson in individuality, empathy and sensitivity.  These last few weeks, no doubt, taught M more than any amount of social skills group could.  I know I told you all that we are in the precarious place of having moved past special needs camps and activities, yet the mainstream world is still a scary, awkward place.  The only way to get there, at this point, is to dive in.  So, I chose to throw M into the deep end of the pool and while that meant hoping and praying he could doggie paddle to safety, instead, he had camp staff who threw him a life vest.  I can’t thank you enough for that!

The best part is that M probably has very little memory of me as a person, which means I did my job well. He stayed for the session, loved his counselors, and participated fully in the bunk activities.  It wasn’t about me, but I am reminded how lucky I am to have the opportunity to work with M. I was able to teach his counselors and know that his mom is confident that he will be able to return to camp next summer and feel successful.

The work that we do at camp is sacred. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it has goes better than we could ever imagine.

Danielle Steinhart, LCSW serves as the  Inclusion Coordinator at URJ Camp Coleman.

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