Everyone deserves to have a fun break in the summer, but for people with disabilities it is not always easy. For someone who uses a wheelchair, for example, it is very difficult to play any sort of sport. Thankfully, many camps, like Camp HASC and the Yachad program in Israel, Yad B’Yad, have been established to make sure that campers with disabilities are included and having fun.
Members of the Yachad program dedicate themselves to addressing the needs of individuals with disabilities and including them in the Jewish community. What parents love about Yachad’s Yad B’Yad program in Israel is that their child is not separated from other participants or placed into a bunk only with other individuals with disabilities. Rather, they are integrated into a bunk together with a staff member who “shadows” the participant, making sure that he or she is being included and having a good time. These staff members are also the staff for the mainstream participants, emphasizing an inclusive environment. It can become an incredible experience for the staff because they can see how they can help an individual with special needs on a daily basis, not just in camp.
For example, one teen at Yad B’ Yad uses a wheelchair and can’t really do much on his own. Yachad found many ways to bring a smile to his face. One exciting activity that made him laugh with delight was attaching his wheelchair to a zipline. It was such a touching moment that 15-year-old mainstream participant Hannah Kirsch recorded it on her phone, and you can hear all the staff members and participants cheering him on.
“I got started with Yachad because my school chose four students in eighth grade to attend a Yachad shabbaton and I was chosen to go, and I’ve been involved ever since. Being able to work with Yachad participants this summer changed my life,” said Kirsch. “To see participants who are physically disabled do physically demanding activities made me realize that Yachad was just a glimpse and sneak peek of what the outside world should look like. At first I thought I was doing a chesed until I realized these are my friends, and they deserve to be included just like any of my other friends. They were not my campers but, rather, my friends and I plan on staying in touch with them like any other friend.”
Camp HASC has served the Jewish community for over 40 years, as a Jewish 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 its very special campers, who enjoy a seven-week sleepaway camp experience, just like many of their siblings and friends.
At HASC, staff seeks to maximize the development of each individual by providing special education; speech, physical, occupational and music therapies; computer instruction; adaptive physical education; and adaptive aquatics. As a result, children and adult HASC campers often gain skills and achieve milestones beyond the scope of parental expectations, while enjoying activities in a stress-free, social environment.
On Sunday, July 29, Camp HASC Experience Day was packed with family and friends. There were so many activities people can do that one almost doesn’t know where to go first. There was cotton candy, face painting and even a carnival swing. It’s also extremely emotional to see all of the smiling faces of these campers who are having a great time at camp and getting ready to welcome their families to their summer home.
Adam Baron, 19, believes working with HASC campers is a humbling experience. “This experience gives me a chance to see how much work and effort that the parents put into the care of their children. When you first start working at a camp like HASC, you are just thrown into a different world,” he explained.
“The more you work with someone, the more you love them. It’s not easy to adapt into this kind of world because you have to learn about each camper as an individual and know their specific preferences.”
Ephraim Poloner, 19, has been working with kids with special needs since he was around 9 years old. He started out working for Friendship Circle and their Hebrew program as a shadow. This summer was his first time working at HASC. “Working at HASC gave me insight on the difference between shadowing and being a counselor. When you are a shadow, usually work is done when the day is over. But when you are a counselor at HASC, work is never over. It’s 24/7 and you always have to be on call and ready to work.”
However, there’s one thing that both jobs have in common. “Whether you are working as a shadow or a counselor, this experience is very rewarding. You develop such strong relationships with these kids,” Poloner said.
Aviva Markowitz, mother of three HASC counselors, posted on Facebook after returning home from Experience Day, inspired to spread the joy she saw at the camp. “We spent the day watching our kids work as staff members in Camp HASC. Words can’t adequately describe the emotions we felt watching the staff interact with the campers and the feeling that exists throughout the entire campus. HASC not only provides a fantastic summer experience for their campers but is a life-altering experience for the counselors and staff as well.”
Josh Greenberg, father of counselor Zack Greenberg, added his experience as a counselor’s parent: “It’s an amazing experience for both campers and counselors. The counselors-to-camper ratio is five to four so there is always a counselor with each child and there is a rotation of the counselors so that each camper develops a connection to all the counselors. We can’t be any prouder of our children that they give up their summer to help these kids and yet, these counselors insist that it’s their best summer.”
Ayelet Pfeiffer, 17, is a mother’s helper in Camp HASC and is inspired, watching all of these counselors’ hard work to make sure these kids are also having the best summer ever. “It’s amazing to see all these teens devoting their summer being with these special campers. It’s a hard job and yet, so fulfilling.”
It is no surprise that the camp’s secret to all the smiling faces is the stupendous effort of the over 400 young men and women, with their determination and love, who serve as counselors and support staff and live with the campers 24 hours a day.
Staff at these camps are very special people. They dedicate their summers to work long hours, meeting the physical and emotional needs of their campers. This can’t be an easy job. Yet, counselors and staff are the first to proclaim that the camp experience, unparalleled for the campers, is also incredibly gratifying, heartening and meaningful for them as well.
By Tzvi Sabo