August 4, 2005
Etta Israel Campers Learn Skills for Life
Mark Worland -- six-foot-something, dressed in tight black and skinhead bald -- grabs Navid by the arm.
"Come with me!" he barks.
"No!" screams Navid, barely 5-feet tall.
Navid throws himself on his back, locks the bottom of his feet to Worland's knees, and shields his face and head from Worland's flailing fists.
"Great job," says Worland, a self-defense specialist, shaking Navid's hand and helping him up, as Navid's friends applaud.
This self-defense class is part of a repertoire of life skills that Navid and his peers are learning at Independent Living Skills, a summer program for developmentally disabled adults run by Etta Israel Center, a mid-Wilshire nonprofit for people with special needs.
Piloted last year, the program now has 15 participants, ages 18 to 29, who are developing life skills in a Jewish atmosphere while also having the kind of fun summer is all about -- sports, trips and counselors who keep the energy level and the warmth at a joyous high.
On this Monday morning, counselors are dressed in muumuus and leis as part of today's Hawaiian theme. They blast music while campers twirl hula-hoops around their arms, necks and hips.
For the hula-hoop contest and smoothie making that followed, the disabled young adults joined with kids from Camp Avraham Moshe, Etta Israel's program for 10- to 18-year-olds with Down syndrome, autism and other developmental disabilities. Both programs meet at the YULA boys' school on Pico Boulevard.
The living-skills training is a natural outgrowth of Camp Avraham Moshe, which has been around for seven years.
"We saw the older campers getting bored. They needed more learning, more focused activities," said Dovid Levine, a college student and long-time Etta Israel volunteer who helped establish and now directs the program for young adults.
The camper-to-counselor ratio at Avraham Moshe is one to one, and at the adult camp one counselor is responsible for two or three. The counselors are paid a nominal stipend.
During the five-week, 8 a.m.-to-3:30 p.m. program, participants learn skills and responsibility from activities such as the camp car wash, taping and producing their own film, and reorganizing the warehouse at a food bank. They also help out with the younger kids and with set-up and cleanup. And this summer they held a charity garage sale, and collected recyclables from receptacles they placed in neighborhood homes.
Some of the adults work during the year, in packaging, food service and janitorial jobs, for instance. Some are in day programs, and others spend their days at home watching television.
Their life-skills classes -- nutrition, hygiene, safety -- and daily social interactions are practice for real life. Trips for rock climbing and horseback riding, accomplished with whatever modifications are necessary, give them a sense of independence, while daily prayers, blessings before and after meals and Jewish music create an unmistakably Jewish experience.
A highly detailed intake process pinpoints specific skills campers want to work on. This summer, one child at Camp Avraham Moshe mastered buttoning his shirt, giving him the independence to dress himself.
One adult with autism hadn't been out of his house for two years, but on a recent day volunteered to be a punching bag for Worland's self-defense demonstration.
After the class, Navid, 25, is eager to talk about his summer experience. It's "the best! A dream come true!" he said.
Navid is a regular at Etta Israel events, including weekend retreats at different synagogues, Sunday school classes and monthly social events. Etta Israel also runs two group homes in Valley Village, self-contained special-needs classes and inclusion programs at day schools, teacher training and a support and outreach program for the Iranian community. All of the programs are designed with the goal of being welcoming to all Jews -- from the unaffiliated to the ultra-Orthodox.
Camp costs $300 a week, a sum that is covered by parents, government funding and scholarships. Donations make up the difference between what is charged and the actual costs, which is closer to $440 a week per person.
Menachem Litenatsky, director of youth and volunteer services at Etta Israel, hopes the summer programs lead to something bigger.
"It's a huge blight on the Los Angeles Jewish community that we don't have a special-needs day school," he says.
Elana Artson, whose son Jacob, 12, attends Camp Avraham Moshe -- and a public school during the year -- appreciates the benefit of an excellent education and a plethora of Jewish activities outside of school. She says Etta Israel gives him a consistent community and a circle of friends that a patchwork of Jewish activities couldn't.
Jacob himself, who is autistic and communicates primarily through typing, is thrilled with the camp.
"I love being with people who love Judaism as much as I do," he wrote in an e-mail. "I also enjoy camp because I can't do most of the things that other 12-year-old boys do independently, but at camp I have an opportunity to do all the things regular kids do."
For information on the Etta Israel Center, visit www.etta.org or call (323) 965-8711.