Meeting Inclusion Campers on Their Level

February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. Join us as we share stories that highlight the impact of inclusion in our camp communities.

“I will make sure to pick up the fresh strawberries when I run into town”, our Office Manager Lisa said as she hopped into her car. I yelled, “Thank you!” as I headed to the lake. I turned to the Division Head by my side and noted how David* is really making such strides in his adjustment to camp.  “Who knew strawberries would be the X factor?”

David, never having been at sleep away camp before, and was overwhelmingly homesick. But our staff agreed that with strong supports, he could push through and would be so proud of himself for doing so. The Division Head discovered David’s love of strawberries and created an individualized incentive program to help encourage him to participate and allow himself to enjoy camp. No one could have predicted his tears on the last day of camp since he didn’t want camp to end!

David, who is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, fought the idea of camp but he had the summer of his life. He made friends, and according to his mom has brought his newfound confidence into his home life.

Additionally, David brought his kind nature and bright ideas, as well as his big heart, to the staff and fellow campers. He helped make camp complete.

In one interpretation from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, Shimon Ben Azzai taught: “Do not disdain any person. Do not underrate the importance of anything for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun.”  All people, of all abilities and interests, not only deserve to have a “place at the table”, but the opportunity to shine and be celebrated. Every person has the potential to provide value and enrich the lives of those around them, as well as the community at large.

Jewish sleep away camps are a fitting environment in which to honor this value. At camp, we create a community in which everyone can experience a strong sense of belonging. During Jewish Disabilities Awareness Inclusion Month, I urge us all to consider how we can continue to push the limits of inclusion and actively educate others about the value of creating inclusive environments.

As the Director of Round Lake Camp, I feel privileged to be a part of NJY Camps where inclusion is nurtured and embraced. Our leader and visionary, Executive Director Len Robinson, propelled us into developing an inclusion model unique to the camping world. Campers with special needs hail from all over the U.S. to take advantage of the opportunity at hand: Experiencing typical Jewish sleep away camp with the supports needed for success. Creating an inclusive environment in which everyone is on board requires intention and planning. It demands support from the top down.  It requires the proper staff, training and follow through.

A Round Lake camper was recently awarded for his submission to a blog contest at everythingsummercamp.com. His words summed up our goals: Round Lake Camp is the best camp, not just because of all the friends you can make or activities you can do, but because you can be yourself there. If you are silly or serious, loud or quiet, it doesn’t matter. At Round Lake, it’s okay to be yourself. No one is going to judge you, make fun of you, bully you, or isolate you because of it.”

*The name of the camper has been changed to insure his privacy.

Aryn graduated from Tufts University with a Bachelor of Arts in Child Development and received her Master’s Degree in Social Work from Columbia University. Prior to becoming the Director of Round Lake Camp, Aryn worked as a school social worker, allowing her to spend 6 summers as Head of Sports in the day camp setting and 5 seasons as the Athletic Director at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah at NJY Camps.  Aryn resides in Westchester, NY with her husband Ken and her three children—all of whom have grown up at NJY Camps.

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