For most college students, summertime is for relaxation, travel, freedom from school and schedules and for having fun. Many take summer jobs. For decades, the Catskills and Poconos have provided summer employment at hotels and summer camps. In our upwardly mobile Jewish community, summer camp is almost an adjunct to day school. It’s a fun experience within a Jewish environment.
Lately, the Jewish community has become increasingly aware of the needs of those children among us who require special care. There are now special ed. programs in some day schools, and also camps that cater to those with special needs. The merit of those who established Camp HASC, Camp Simcha, Camp Kaylie and the Yachad program at Camp Mesorah and other inclusion programs at additional camps is certainly great. Greater still is the merit of the hundreds of college students who serve as counselors to these special campers.
Every child deserves to have fun, and that is what Camp Simcha delivers to children and teens with cancer and other blood disorders. Their mission is to bring childhood back to children who lost it when they were diagnosed. To do that they offer all camp activities—sports, arts and crafts, swimming and boating, camp shows, special events and activities—with the leadership of trained and compassionate counselors who specialize in keeping campers laughing from early morning to late at night.
Each camper has his or her own counselor, a guide and friend who ensures that every minute of camp life exceeds expectations. The camp’s medical and administrative staffs, experts in caring for seriously ill children, ensure that the highest standards of health and safety are always met.
Every summer, Camp Simcha welcomes over 200 children and teens with a wide range of diagnoses for fun, friendship and personal growth. Non-stop activities, bunk spirit, singing and dancing encourage independence and build self-confidence. It is a unique opportunity for children fighting chronic illness to build a community of people with whom to share hopes and dreams as they grow.
Camp Simcha is a place where “I can’t” is replaced by “Wow! That was fun!” Since the camp’s medical and administrative staffs are experts in caring for children with serious or debilitating chronic disorders, they welcome children dependent on wheelchairs or walkers, respirators, gastric tubes and other medical equipment.
Chai Lifeline, Camp Simcha’s sponsoring organization, is dedicated to helping families of seriously ill children cope with the crises and challenges of pediatric illness. They understand that illness impacts everyone in the family, and their programs offer emotional and social support to each member—the sick child, parents and siblings.
The Children’s Oncology Camping Association International (COCA-I) has identified the many benefits of camping for children with cancer. “These children can have a variety of limitations, but first and foremost, they are still children—and want to be treated the same as children without cancer with opportunities to run, play, swim and enjoy being with other kids.” The same could be said for children with chronic illnesses and disabilities.
Camping helps children learn how to better cope with the physical, psychological and emotional effects of their illnesses. The memories made at camp can help them navigate the pain and isolation of illness. The skills they learn can improve gross, fine and graphomotor skills and eye-hand coordination. Living with peers enables children to learn important social skills, and the friendships can positively impact self-image and confidence.
Yachad is an agency of the Orthodox Union that is dedicated to addressing the needs of individuals with disabilities and including them in the Jewish community. At Camp Mesorah, in addition to an expanded vocational/worker program, campers are fully integrated into a typical bunk together with supportive “shadow” staff to facilitate meaningful inclusion. This is an extremely special opportunity, and while there are obvious benefits to having Yachad members experience a “typical” summer, there is also incredible value to be gained for the campers and staff in camp as well. There are similar programs—Camps Morasha, Moshava Indian Orchard, Moshava Ba’ir NJ, Camp Nesher, Camp Shoshanim, Camp Sternberg, Camp Magen Avraham and many, many more. In addition, they have a few stand-alone inclusive programs such as Yad B’Yad trips to Israel and the adult Getaway program, for a total of approximately 25 summer programs.
Camp Kaylie integrates their special population into the general camp population. This philosophy of inclusion goes a long way towards normalizing the camp experience.
Camp HASC has served the Jewish community as the premier summer program for children and adults with special needs—intellectual and physical disabilities. Camp HASC is unique in its ability to meet the complex personal, social, therapeutic and medical needs of their very special campers, who enjoy a seven-week sleepaway camp experience, just like many of their siblings and friends.
There is no doubt that the real secret behind the success of Camp HASC is the tremendous effort of the over 400 young men and women who serve as counselors and support staff. Living with the campers 24 hours a day, with their determination and love, these counselors and support staff are able to drive home lessons learned in the classroom as well as on the playground, providing a total nurturing environment in which the campers can thrive. No wonder so many visitors to Camp HASC use the word “magical” in describing what they see!
Staff at all of these camps are very special people. Their willingness to work long hours, meeting every physical and emotional need of their campers is truly inspirational. Some need to be dressed, carried, bathed, toileted etc. It is not an easy job. Yet, counselors and staff are the first to proclaim that the camp experience, unparalleled for children, is also incredibly rewarding, uplifting and meaningful for them as well. Kol Hakavod to them for their middot and altruism.
The function of every summer camp is to enable children to create memories, build relationships and achieve milestones. Creating an opportunity for those with special needs to have these experiences, and to give parents and siblings who deal with these young people all year, 24/7, a respite is truly praiseworthy.
By Wallace Greene
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene is a veteran educator with many accomplishments to his name. He is the founder of the Sinai Schools.