By Michelle Wizov
When the time came to choose a camp for our children, my husband and I had many considerations. What values would the camp we chose instill upon them and how would they be in line with our family values? Would the camp provide the same lifelong impact that my husband’s and mine did? How would we pay for our triplets to attend? We wanted to find the best camp for our family and Camp Harlam fit all of our needs. (Having grown up with Executive Director Aaron Selkow was just a bonus!)
The countdown began to our children’s first summer at overnight camp. We were probably just as, if not more, excited than our kids, knowing what an amazing experience they had in store for them. Little did we know that just 11 days before second session 2015 began, our family’s priorities and needs in a camp would change dramatically, yet Harlam would continue to meet Every. Single. One.
During what was supposed to be a four-day weekend away, our son Sam suffered a critical medical trauma. He miraculously survived against every odd, but not without what would be an uphill battle of physical and cognitive impairments (some temporary, some permanent) that left us navigating a new normal in the world of parents to a special needs child.
One of the first things Sam asked us when he was able was if he could still go to camp with his brother and sister. He couldn’t that summer, but we told him that he would next summer. He had a lot of work to do to get ready, but he was up for the challenge, and so was Harlam.
Over the next nine months, no matter what I was concerned about, the Harlam Professional Staff never faltered in their confidence that they would be able to provide Sam with the summer camp experience he was anticipating. We were facing many new challenges, and they reassured us that this was not new for them. For the few scenarios that were new, they were open and willing to figure it out together. I suddenly was seeing Harlam’s commitment to inclusion everywhere. First, it was a post on Harlam’s Facebook page with a picture depicting Harlam’s definition of inclusion, that “equal” doesn’t mean “fair.” Then, the announcement of the “Chill Zone.” And when I was searching for information about the daily schedule, I discovered an entire section of Harlam’s website dedicated to Camper Care and Inclusion.
Just before second session 2016 began, we loaded up the kids and drove to Harlam. I had my 3-inch binder with all of Sam’s medical information, occupational therapy reports and recommendations, techniques, questions and suggestions. Sam had his own notebook with his questions. Any last minute doubts I, or Sam, may have had were erased when, after the staff patiently listened to me, they then spoke directly with Sam. They discussed the support they provided for other kids at Harlam with similar needs. They told him about the visual chart in the bunk for the morning and evening routines; a daily schedule printed on a small card he could keep in his pocket or backpack; the “alternative Shabbat” offered if the high energy Shabbat was too overwhelming. They told him how some other campers were able to take a walk around the Chadar Ochel (dining hall) with a counselor when the songs and festivities during meals became too much, and that he could utilize this if needed.
By Opening Day, Sam had worked so hard he almost made it easy for everyone at Harlam. He walked into his bunk and, thanks to the confidence he gained from camp’s belief in him, he quickly became a part of the Harlam family. He spent his time at camp taking advantage of every single minute and made enough memories in his time there to carry him to his next summer. He came home stronger, more independent, and happier than when we left him, which was exactly what we wished for all of our children when we sent them to camp.
Many people were amazed that just one year after his medical trauma, Sam was at overnight camp. The idea of accommodations and inclusion of children of all needs at an overnight camp is still new to some. But hopefully not for long. And hopefully not for a small, select few camps. Hopefully someday children of all needs can find the same opportunity that Harlam has provided my children and so many others.
Sam spent his first summer at overnight camp taking big, giant steps that allowed him to soar because he was held up by Harlam’s belief that every child deserves a meaningful Jewish camp experience.