February 24, 2010
Lighting the way
Camp brings summer funto special-needs kids, families.
In late August, as the summer light begins to fade and families prepare for the coming fall with back-to-school shopping, Camp Ramah in Ojai will conclude its programming with a session for families of children with special needs — Camp Ohr Lanu.
Hebrew for “our light,” Ohr Lanu is part of Tikvah, Ramah’s program for Jewish adolescents with learning, emotional and developmental disabilities. But where Tikvah mainstreams individual special-needs campers with their typical camp peers during regular summer sessions, Ohr Lanu functions as a separate weeklong retreat for the entire family of a special-needs child and includes study, prayer, respite, support and fun activities like swimming, hiking and climbing. Now in its third year, the five-day Camp Ohr Lanu begins Aug. 20 and will include 25 to 30 families.
“From my experience, the families with kids with special needs … they often feel rejected,” said Elana Naftalin-Kelman, Camp Ramah’s Tikvah director. “Most of them aren’t allowed in schools or Hebrew schools and can’t participate in regular synagogue life. [Ohr Lanu] is a Jewish experience for them.”
The camp is available to children ages 4-14 with all types of special needs, as long as they are physically able to move around Ramah’s facilities. The current cost to families accepted for Ohr Lanu is $500, thanks to a $125,000 Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation (JCF).
Karen Hilsberg attended Ohr Lanu in 2009 with her 13-year-old daughter, Emily, and 10-year-old son, Ben. After her daughter attended Tikvah the previous summer, the family decided to give Ohr Lanu a try.
“It was nice to be together as a family in a situation where I didn’t have to do anything or plan anything,” Hilsberg said. “That was mentally and emotionally nice.”
Upon arrival, special-needs campers are assigned a buddy to guide them through their week at Ohr Lanu; those buddies accompany the children on all of their adventures. Activities for special-needs children include scavenger hunts and other games, singing, sibling workshops and a daily activity — dance, music, art or drama — facilitated by a trained therapist. Parents are able to engage in Torah study, meet with other families and network at a resource fair, while siblings have their own group, based on the national program called Sibshops.
All family members also participate in daily prayers and other Jewish education. Rabbi Daniel Greyber, Ramah’s executive director, feels that the week allows for attendees to connect with their Jewish selves.
“We know that most programs out there just aren’t doable for families with special-needs kids. They don’t speak to their struggles and needs,” he said. “[Ohr Lanu] demonstrates that we care about the children’s Jewish identities.”
The Ohr Lanu staff provides not only camp activity support, but also does double duty as babysitters in the evenings, keeping a watchful eye on sleeping children so parents can participate in adult activities such as a wine and cheese night and salsa dancing. Parents are given opportunities not just to relax and take a break, but also to connect with other parents in similar situations.
“It was really nice to just meet other families who were going through similar things and get to spend time with them and learn from them,” Hilsberg said. “I think, for all of us, it helped to see that we’re not in this alone.”
While the camp’s first three summers have been covered under the JCF grant’s funds, that funding will run out this year. A generous gift from an anonymous Ramah community donor will allow the program to continue through 2011, but additional grants or donations will be necessary to ensure that Ohr Lanu remains a fixture at Ramah.
“We want to endow the program,” Greyber said. “The Jewish community needs to understand that the way in which we value family and children with special needs is in where we put our funding.”
For more information about Camp Ohr Lanu, visit campramah.org, or contact Elana Naftalin-Kelman at email@example.com.