Jewish Journal

Opening up more overnight Jewish camps for campers with special needs

by Michelle K. Wolf

January 12, 2013 | 11:24 pm

As part of the conservatorship process for our now 18-year-old son with multiple developmental disabilities, we had a meeting recently with staff from the state-funded Lanterman Regional Center to determine what legal rights we as parents should retain now that Danny is no longer a minor in the eyes of the law. One of those rights is deciding where to live.

In the course of the meeting, the staff member asked Danny, “If you weren’t able to live at home with Mom and Dad, where else would like to live?” Danny, who has limited verbal abilities, quickly said, “Ramah!” without any prompting or hesitation. Danny has spent the past four summers at Camp Ramah in Ojai, CA as part of their “Tikvah” special needs program. Despite the fact he is always homesick for us in the evenings for the first few days of camp, Ramah is the place that Danny regards as a home away from home. All year long, he points to his Camp Ramah T-shirts from the previous summer, and talks about his favorite parts of camp: “Ramah pool”, “Dance” and “Meir” his amazing 1:1 aide.

I tell this story in light of this week’s announcement that the national Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) has just received a $60,000 research grant from Dr. Allan and Nan Lipton of Hershey, PA to map current services available to children with special needs and physical disabilities at nonprofit Jewish overnight camps across North America. The funding will be used “to provide a thorough understanding of the options Jewish camps offer to children with special needs and provide a baseline for expanding services” according to the press release from FJC.

As things stand now, 150 Jewish overnight camps serve nearly 75,000 children each summer but they are only able to accommodate fewer than 1,000 campers with special needs, and many camps have waiting lists for those few slots. Jewish overnight camp is the perfect place for typical campers to meet, and engage with those campers who have special needs, especially those with more severe developmental disabilities such as our son.

Since most Jewish day schools and many religious afterschool programs aren’t able to accommodate kids with special needs (don’t get me started), camp is the one place where typical campers can meet kids like Danny in the cool of the pool, or during structured “buddy time”. Without the worry of academic success, it is an easy and organic environment to connect with someone a little different from you.

FJC will be partnering with Laszlo Strategies, a firm that helps non-profit organizations in their efforts to champion the causes of people with physical, mental, neurological and developmental disabilities, as well as to promote medical science. I hope that FJC and Laszlo Strategies will be able to collect and analyze the data quickly, and get more kids with special needs coming home from camp with a duffel bag full of dirty laundry and plenty of happy memories to last for next 11 months.

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