Special Needs Summer Camp an Eye-Opening Experience

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This year, I had the incredible opportunity to be the “mother,” adviser and friend to 15 young adults with varying levels of disabilities who take part in the Vocational-Education Program (Voc-Ed) at Camp Ramah in New England. My children are third-generation campers and, for the past 10 years, either my husband or I have worked there while our children make great friends, live full Jewish lives and ignore us.

I had time in between jobs this summer and, because I have always loved working with Ramah’s Tikvah program for special needs campers, I felt it would be a great way to spend the summer. I knew it would be fun and lots of work, but I never could have imagined what a strong impact it would have on me as an individual, mother and professional. I did not anticipate how deeply connected I would become with each of these incredible young adults and just how much of an impact this program has on the participants, their families and the camp community as a whole.
From the first day when the gates opened to the last day, when our building once again became just an empty space, our Voc-Ed family shared many incredible moments. For most of our participants, camp was familiar, but for others, this was their first experience at Ramah Palmer.
I learned quickly that this was not going to be just another summer at camp, but one filled with lots of special moments that would deepen my understanding of the many incredible benefits of living in an inclusive community.
Let me share just a few of these here: Because of Kate, I will always have a special association with the Shema. Kate joined our Ramah family for the first time this summer. Like the rest of camp, Voc-Ed begins each day with the morning prayers. It was not obvious to us if the tunes or words were familiar to her, but she seemed to enjoy the singing, clapping and overall ruach.
When it came to the Shema, from the first day on, Kate watched intently as I gathered my tzitzit, wrapped them around my finger and kissed them in the traditional manner. I noticed and smiled to myself. The next week, Kate looked at me, grabbed the drawstrings from her sweatshirt and mirrored my actions. From that day on, Kate and I shared my tzitzit, taking turns kissing them at the appropriate times, smiling each time we did.
Another magic moment happened one morning early on. I was awoken very early — before sunrise — to sounds of a faint voice outside my window. Slightly annoyed, I got out of bed and there was my friend Eric, standing with a huge grin on his face, singing his favorite Beatles tune, “Here Comes the Sun,” over and over again. He was so happy and content, that I had no choice but to put aside my annoyance at being awoken so early and smile at the amazing scene in front of me. A 32-year-old adult with disabilities who lives 10 months a year in a group home in Brooklyn, N.Y., Eric clearly enjoyed being in nature. He woke me up each morning much earlier than I would have liked, but when he left camp early, I truly missed my morning wake-up calls.
I was often asked if I had training in special education as I seemed to fit right into the Voc-Ed program. My response was always the same — I am a mother and it’s not that different than taking care of young children.
That analogy was shattered the first time I was brushing a participant’s hair and found gray mixed in or when I had to help with other areas of personal hygiene. As any family member of an adult with disabilities will tell you, this analogy only goes so far.
The reality is that while intellectually and mentally, their bodies may be stalled, their bodies mature in all the same ways that others’ do. I have three children who I expect to mature typically and become pretty independent; with few exceptions, this is not the case for my Voc-Ed children.
I could fill pages with the many highlights of my summer but, as with other life experiences, it’s easy to focus on all fun and ignore the more difficult times. From this experience I have true admiration and respect for families caring for their children and siblings full-time, year-round.
This summer, I worked harder than I ever have. Aside from long days punctuated with little sleep, there were times where I felt unequipped to stop harmful behaviors, redirect anxiety or make sure everyone had their needs taken care of. Now home, I realize that I will never be able to fully thank the members of Voc-Ed 2016 for all that they have given me. I understand just how many gifts adults with disabilities have to offer — whether it is highlighting the meaning of a routine ritual or teaching me to take time and appreciate nature.
I miss my newly adopted children and look forward to our FaceTime calls, quick texts or pre-Shabbat calls. In my day-to-day routine, I miss the different perspective that being around kids and adults with disabilities adds to life and think about just how much richer all of our lives would be if we could find a way to make our schools, synagogues and workplaces more inclusive.
Camp lovers will always say that camp is the most magical place, a place where life is lived like no other place on earth. While there is certainly some truth to that, there are definitely lessons about communal living and the Jewish community that can undoubtedly be applied to “real life.”
I challenge us all, in the year to come, to think about how we can create more inclusive communities so that all of us can benefit from the gifts we can share with one another.
Abbey Frank is the assistant director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

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