This summer, the Leonard family of Doylestown will be doing what many other families do: getting ready for camp. They will fill their blue minivan with snacks, swimsuits, sneakers, clothing suitable for Shabbat services and rain gear. They will bring along DVDs of their sons’ favorite movies: How to Train Your Dragon, The Sound of Music, SpongeBob SquarePants and all three Toy Story movies — essential for keeping Ryan, 14, and Alec, 12, content on the long car ride to Clayton, Ga. The trip takes about 15 hours if they drive straight through. But parents Rob and Andrea Leonard take their time, sharing the driving and usually stopping overnight at a hotel in Bristol, Va., before arriving at Camp Yofi in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains the next day.
What isn’t typical about their situation, besides the long distance they are willing to travel, is that the adult Leonards, as well as their daughter Ava, 16, attend the Jewish overnight camp along with their sons, both of whom are on the autism spectrum. And they look forward to every minute of it.
Camp Yofi, for children aged 6 to 13 and their families, exists for just five magical days out of every year. This summer it will run from Aug. 5 to Aug. 9. As it has for the past 11 years, it will share the same facilities and beautiful natural surroundings as Camp Ramah Darom (South), whose season will have just ended. During that time, 25 families, including the Leonards, will experience everything a typical Jewish camp has to offer and so much more — the opportunity to interact with other families just like theirs who share the day-to-day realities of coping with the parenting demands of children with autism.
It is an experience so peaceful and profound that the Leonards willingly drive hundreds of miles to get it again and again. The first year or so that they came to camp, the Leonards lived in Atlanta, less than two hours from camp. But when they moved to Bucks County, they didn’t have to think twice about returning to the Georgia camp to catch up with the friends they have made among the staff members and families who show up every year until their kids age out.
Andrea Leonard says, “It’s like going to Jewish camp for five days. I enjoy being around the Jewish people and the Jewish programming and that kind of thing because it gives us a chance to participate in that — and there’s childcare.”
There are activities all family members do together and separately, with attention paid to the specific needs of adults, children with autism and their siblings. In addition, each family is assigned its own chaver (Hebrew for friend) who not only provides child care but is responsible for all family members having a terrific and safe time.
Huntingdon Valley resident Rhea Glauberman has been working at Camp Yofi nearly every year since 2009. Last summer, she had the opportunity to be a chaver. Glauberman says it was life-changing to see the effect five days at camp has on the families who attend. She describes being a chaver as “pretty much being a friend to make sure a child is having fun doing the activities to the best of their ability.”
She adds, “It’s so amazing to feel the love” and to see the first day “when new families are not familiar and see that on the second day, everyone is a family together. Everyone comes together, no matter how religious they are.”
Last year, Ryan Leonard celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at the camp by singing the Shema — and received an award for “Best Shema” when camp was over. Andrea and Rob keep the modest-looking but treasured award in their bedroom, easily finding it to show a reporter.
Camp director Susan Teckteil, an elementary school teacher in Las Vegas, has been with the camp from the start. She has been tweaking it every year. One of those tweaks was to raise the age limit so that campers could have their B’nai Mitzvah there if their family desires it. Depending on the child’s abilities, that can mean anything from opening the ark to reading from the Torah. She recalls that last summer she tried to convince a mother of a nonverbal child to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah at camp. At first, the mother was disinterested. She said it was pointless because it would not mean anything to her son. Teckteil gently persisted. The mother finally agreed to carry the Torah and her son stood by her side. Teckteil recalls, “She had tears streaming down her face. She said, ’I don’t know if it meant anything to my son, but it meant everything to me.’ There are no words for that.”
When Camp Yofi began, there were no other family camps like it. Within hours of the announcement that it was coming, parents from around the world expressed interest in attending. There was a huge waiting list from parents hungry for such a customized experience. Teckteil says the idea grew out of a regular Ramah Darom family camp that was attended by a Chattanooga single mother with three children on the autism spectrum. Touched by her plight, then-camp director Rabbi Loren Sykes researched services available for such families through the Jewish community. Finding none, the idea for Camp Yofi was born and Teckteil was tasked with making it happen. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know when I said ‘Yes,’ ” she says now. “It’s been totally life-changing for me. I’m a different parent, a different teacher.”
She also had the opportunity to write the manual on how to start a family camp for children with autism and to see other camps follow in her footsteps.
One of them is Camp Ramah in the Poconos, which this summer will run its seventh Tikvah Family Camp from Aug. 19 to 23 for families with special needs children from 4 to 13. Oreland resident Adena Sternthal, the camp’s director, says the majority of the 15 families who attend have children on the autism spectrum, with some nonverbal and others highly functioning.
As with Camp Yofi, many families return year after year and have formed strong bonds. The impact on them is huge, Sternthal says. “It’s a time when families are able to connect with one another because their kids are similar — to come to a beautiful place in nature and experience Jewish things and Shabbat together. No one is judging them or turning their heads because their kids are making noises. It’s a lot of togetherness. Families talk to each other about school, Hebrew school, what one family is doing at one synagogue. And they take that back to their own shuls and talk about it — to talk and vent and get out frustrations and be together.”
Among those who will be returning to Tikvah Family Camp in the Poconos are Elkins Park residents Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, her husband Fred, 12-year-old son George and 9-year-old daughter June. They will also be bringing along George’s yellow Lab companion dog, Hank. It will be their fifth summer at the camp.
Though George is nonverbal, Kaplan-Mayer says he is learning to communicate using an iPad. She points out that some of his behaviors can seem strange to those who do not know him. He is easily overwhelmed and when excited he moves a lot; he shakes his hands when he is feeling anxious. But that’s all fine at Tikvah Family Camp. “Tikvah is designed so people are ready to understand his needs and work with him. We don’t have to spend the whole time explaining his differences and can relax and enjoy being at camp and spending time as a family,” Kaplan-Mayer says. Daughter June, who does not have autism, is a fan, too. She says, “It’s very fun. You get to hang out with your family. I like the activities and fun stuff. The counselors are my great friends. I like sleeping in bunk beds” — although adults get to sleep in regular beds. “It’s like a magical vacation.”
Kaplan-Mayer has no doubt that George loves coming to camp, too. In fact, as the family car reaches the back roads that lead to the camp, George smiles from ear to ear. His mother says. “When he is at Tikvah, he is smiling almost the whole time.”
Gail Snyder writes from her home in Chalfont.