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Summer Camps Welcoming Children with Disabilities

by Liora Brosbe, Jewish LearningWorks Senior Educator

Summer vacation from school is practically defined by the freedom, lack of structure, and opportunities to explore and have new experiences outside the conventional classroom.

However, for many children with neuro-differences, the summer brings challenges for this very reason. The changes in routine and unknown expectations can result in difficulty acclimating to new situations or making new friends in unfamiliar environments. Routines, clear expectations, and predictability can be helpful foundations for success in school. When summer arrives, children and their families are ready for the unique, creative, and exciting programming that camp can provide. How are campers with disabilities transitioning to the Jewish summer camp experience, confident that their differences will be met with curiosity, compassion, and capable professionals?

At Jewish LearningWorks we are finding, just as with our academic year programming, the summer camp world is eager to meet the needs of all campers, including those with physical disabilities, ADHD, mild to moderate intellectual and developmental disabilities, and campers who are on the autism spectrum. This means day camps where children can thrive, and overnight camps where campers with disabilities are part of a greater Jewish camp community. Of course, this also requires hiring counselors that are trained and dedicated to support the need of campers with special needs.

Here are three local examples of summer camp programs working for inclusion of campers with disabilities:

Chaverim: Inclusion for Kids of All Abilities

Camp Shalom is a summer day camp that is part of the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center, a program of Jewish Silicon Valley. Within Camp Shalom is Chaverim, which serves as Camp Shalom’s inclusion summer camp program, designed for children of all abilities, ages 5-12 (entering Kindergarten-6th grade).

Chaverim means “friends” in Hebrew. The inclusion program offers 1:1 staff advocates to shadow each camper and provides individualized and tailored support. They work with each child individually to provide integration and inclusion into Camp Shalom groups, and daily activities, while also accommodating modified schedules when the need arises.

What makes this program special is that the program is not parallel to the camp activities, but integrated and campers experience their peers of all needs and abilities. This is an essential piece of building community, but also provides all campers with the opportunity to meet people with disabilities, and deepen their understanding of the diversity within our community.

Contact chaverim@jvalley.org, camp@jvalley.org or 408-357-7416 for more information.

Camp Tawonga: Now Hiring Inclusion Counselors

Alongside their counseling staff, Camp Tawonga is looking for dedicated and energetic young adults to serve in a unique role within the camp community. Tawonga has made it a priority to have staff that are specifically trained, and attentive to the needs of 8-15 year old campers with special needs. The inclusion counselor works with groups of campers, without singling out any specific camper that could use extra support. The inclusion counselor doesn’t sleep in the camper bunks, but is an integral part of the campers day, and coordinates with other camp staff, and specialists to be sure the needs of the camper are being met so that they can be successful away from home.

As Lom Friedman, a veteran of the Tawonga community and seasoned Jewish professional describes the ideal candidate, “The role is ideal for someone with previous experience with kids and is interested in disability inclusion work. Maybe they have worked with neurodiverse kids in the past, and are new or returning camp staff. We welcome someone to the team who is looking for an incredible summer being a part of Tawonga’s mission to give all children access to magical, overnight camp experiences, making friends, and developing new life skills.”

In speaking with Lom, this position seems ideal for a college student or recent graduate who seeks all the awesome benefits of being in a Jewish community at the iconic Yosemite-based camp, but isn’t required to sleep in the bunk with the kids. It could be a great match for a young adult with a free summer ahead.

Contact Lom Friedman with questions or referrals at lom@tawonga.org, or apply here

Tikvah (Special Needs) at Camp Ramah Northern California

Ramah Galim, the Ramah camp in Northern California has been a home away from home for campers since it opened in 2016. Deret Musselman, the director of Tikvah, also serves as the Director of Community Care, and is dedicated to finding ways for campers to experience the different aspects of what makes Ramah Galim unique.
This program primarily serves campers with mild to moderate intellectual and developmental disabilities. Most campers in the summer camp program are roughly in grades 4-12, but much like the overall intentional ways the campers are integrated, the most important factor is fit, not grade level.

From mountain biking to performance arts, and boogie boarding in the Monterey Bay, Tikvah campers have all the benefits of being at camp, while being uniquely supported in their needs for connection and engaging in the appropriate pace of activities at camp in a way that works for them.

Contact Tikvah Director, Deret Musselman, at tikvah@ramahnorcal.org for more information.

Whether the Jewish summer camp is meeting needs with unique programming tracks or customized training for their staff, all campers can find a place in the formative environment that is shaped with new friends and lasting Jewish experiences.

Special Needs Inclusion Training for Your Team

Jewish LearningWorks is able to offer special needs inclusion training for your team. We are able to customize the content, scope, structure and format of the training to meet your team’s needs. We are also able to subsidize 60% of the cost of customized special needs inclusion training for Bay Area Jewish organizations during the 2022-2023 program year.

For more information, please contact Jenni Mangel, Director, Educational Leadership.