URJ Camp Harlam is proud to celebrate February as Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month. Visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center to learn more about the URJ’s work in this area and read our Executive Director Aaron Selkow’s piece, “A Change Would Do You Good: How URJ Camp Harlam is Leading the Way in Camper Inclusion”, on the URJ blog.
By Lori Zlotoff, LCSW
Camp Harlam Inclusion Coordinator
February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month, which gives us a good enough reason to “sheb nachas” (share pride) about all the amazing work we are doing at Harlam in the area of inclusion. I could tell you about our amazing Chill Zone – a space for kids to take a sensory break from the overstimulation of camp. Or I could describe the alternative song session – a quieter, acoustic version of the raucous song session in the dining hall that helps kids participate with the same songs in a less deafening environment. I could tell you about the inclusion prayer that campers write and share at the beginning of each Shabbat service. But the best thing I could do to demonstrate how our philosophy of inclusion impacts our community is to tell you a story. A story about real campers practicing the values of social inclusion inside their bunk. Campers who, without even realizing it, were making our community a more whole and inclusive place just by being a good friend.
For the sake of anonymity, let’s call this camper Peter. Peter came to camp a bit apprehensive. This was his first time away from home for any length of time, and he was worried about how he would manage missing his family. Peter is adopted and has had separation anxiety and school refusal in the past. He often gets teased by kids in school for his unique choices of self-expression. Complications from birth, coupled with diagnoses of ADHD and anxiety, make it challenging for him to cope with regular, everyday tasks. His parents did not know how he would manage at camp. But Peter wanted to come. He was insistent. So, we suggested that Peter come to Rookie Day, our day-long summer experience for prospective campers. When it came time to get on the bus, Peter refused. He didn’t think he could do it. We talked with Peter’s family and waited another year.
As the Inclusion Coordinator, I spoke at length with Peter’s parents. We talked about how to prepare Peter for camp and for success. We had Peter come to New Camper Orientation, an opportunity each spring for new campers and their families to spend an afternoon at camp. We had Peter Skype with his staff before the start of camp. We talked to Peter’s counselors extensively about how to support him and how to notice if he wasn’t doing well. We prepped his parents again. We let them know that Peter could be his best self here and that there would be many role models around him – both among staff and campers – who would make Peter feel like he fit in. Peter was ready to go. Not even a week into the session, Peter shared that he was having the best time and planned on coming back to camp EVERY YEAR until he was on staff. We were in close communication with his parents, who were so happy and relieved that Peter was doing as well as he was. It was a true testament to the preparation, culture, environment, and acceptance of the staff and campers. Peter’s bunkmates accepted, honored, and celebrated Peter for who he is – and because of that unconditional love and support, he was able to thrive! There was never a moment that anyone didn’t think that Peter couldn’t do it – and not only did he do it, but he enhanced the lives of his bunkmates and his friends forever.