She was a woman with a generous heart and a caring soul. When Cindy Smukler Dorani speaks of her maternal grandmother, the late Mildred Lasch, that's the message that comes through loud and clear.
The plaque hanging at the entrance to the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia Kaiserman Branch preschool says it all about Lasch, who left a very generous endowment for special-needs campers to the summer day camps at the JCCs Kaiserman and Klein branches. It reads: "A woman who passed the torch of dignity and respect to her nine great-grandchildren, and to generations of Jewish children she could see only in her dreams."
The children's dreams of a positive camp experience are becoming reality, thanks to Lasch.
"My grandmother loved children, and I know she would be thrilled to know how her gift will enrich the lives of youngsters with challenges who can now enjoy a rich and full camp experience," said Smukler Dorani, who has been working to implement the gift.
"My grandmother was wise and alert until her death last year in April -- she watched the news, she cared about the world, and she loved hearing about what was going on at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia," said Smukler Dorani, herself a devoted Federation leader with an impressive record of service and accomplishment.
The goal of the Mildred Lasch Special-Needs Inclusion Camp Program is to offer youngsters with a wide range of challenges the chance to experience camp in a mainstreamed way. With the help of "shadows" -- aides who are trained to work one-on-one with the youngsters -- these children spend their camp days with nonchallenged campers.
A Full Social Experience
"The children with special needs have a full social experience," said Farrell Borine, site director of the JCCs Kaiserman Branch, "and other campers have the opportunity to become comfortable with the special-needs kids in a meaningful way. Everybody benefits."
Borine is delighted that the Lasch grant will enable the Kaiserman and Klein camps to expand the special-needs inclusion aspect with additional spaces for campers and additional funding for qualified staff.
"Even though this program has been in existence since 1998, limited funding and high operating expenses have kept it from growing as much as we'd hoped it would," explained Borine. "Now it will really take off."
Borine expects to see opportunities for at least 30 youngsters with special needs to participate at each day camp.
Campers from low- and moderate-income families may also receive support from a new Day Camp Scholarship Fund introduced by Federation for the summer of 2007.
"Jewish-identity camping experiences are a top priority of Federation's Center for Jewish Life and Learning," noted Brian Mono, manager of allocations for Federation. "Studies have shown that these camps are an important component for building Jewish identity in youth. They provide many Jewish children and teenagers with a unique, full-time Jewish life experience. Naturally, we believe that these opportunities should be available to all Jewish children, regardless of financial or special-needs issues."
The youngsters at the Lasch Camp, all second- through sixth-graders, will get to participate in archery and other sports, swimming, music, dance, art, nature and weekly Shabbat programs, among other activities.
The camp runs from June 25 to Aug. 17 at both JCCs locations.
"I'm so proud that my grandmother's name will forever be attached to this program," stated Smukler Dorani. "I know she's smiling down on us, delighted that her gift will touch the lives of children who need and deserve a helping hand."
For more information, call 610-896-7770, Ext. 123.