I have never been able to understand or appreciate the allure of summer overnight camp. My family and friends wax poetic about their longing to return to their “home away from home” and they always exhibit what I call an overly dramatic sadness at camp’s end.
Really? Not for me!
As a visually impaired kid 53 years ago at the age of 11, I attended overnight camp for the first and last time. My school friends were all going to this Jewish overnight camp, and I wanted to be just like my friends. My parents had always made certain that I was not treated differently from them and if they were all going, I was going too. Just like them, I anticipated my summer eagerly and a little nervously.
It was a disaster.
I’ll spare the gory details. In fairness, the camp had never before had a disabled child attend. This was before inclusion of people with disabilities was even a consideration and the camp was just not prepared for a kid like me. I’m not even sure they knew then that I was disabled(they didn’t ask, and I wanted to pass).
I spent those three weeks miserable, feeling different, excluded from certain activities, and anxious about being in situations that were strange and possibly dangerous. Since I could not see at night, night activities were especially terrifying, and feigning sickness to get out of them was worse: The counselors would send me back to the bunk, again alone in the dark. All I wanted was to go home. But when my own children wanted to go, I said yes for all the same reasons my parents had tried to send me: All their friends were going, and everyone raved about the experience.
For my typically developing children, camp was a wonderful experience. Fifty years after my bad camp experience, I became a board member of Keshet , and Last year I became board chair. In my positions, I began to hear a lot about inclusion in both overnight and day
camp experiences. I think that in order to really understand what inclusion at camp means, you have to be there. I visited the Z Frank Apache Day Camp twice. What struck me and moved me was the seamless way that with Keshet support kids with disabilities were not simply included as part of the camp, but how they were embraced and supported.
Last shabbat, I had the opportunity to spend time at Camp Chi with Keshet’s CEO, Jen Philips. What an experience! Suffice it to say that if I could go back 50-some years and be that 11-year-old visually impaired kid but have this kind of camp experience, I would jump at the chance!
Here disabled children really belonged! The staff was trained and support was available to help kids with a variety of disabilities participate and enjoy the activities, and in some instances campers support other campers-“natural support”. If you had told me fifty years ago that this would be a reality, I would have told you that that was crazy talk. I couldn’t even imagine it then.
This is reality! After my Camp Chi weekend, I know that this is happening. Inclusion at Camp Chi is more than just attendance. It’s more than just accessible grounds. It is full participation, embracing the ideal that inclusivity reflects Jewish values in a way that benefits everyone—disabled and able bodied alike. It is about making lifelong friendships and creating that “home away from home” atmosphere for all campers.
In truth, Camp Chi embodies what should be the ideal for all aspects of life-- education, recreation, employment and residential life for people with disabilities. This ideal is not simply about being included; it is about belonging.
Through the partnership of Keshet and Camp Chi and because of the staff training, camper support and dedication to inclusion that Keshet provides to Camp Chi, disabled campers find a summer home where they are welcomed, embraced, and truly belong! This Keshet/Camp Chi experience does something even more important for kids with disabilities: It teaches them about independence, possibilities, and opportunities. It gives them the message that with support and accommodations, they get to experience life in ways that are similar to their typically developing peers. This message can have a profound impact on the trajectory of disabled kids’ lives.
There is another important benefit to inclusion that needs to be acknowledged: What we see, hear, and learn as children and young adults influences the opinions, fears, and beliefs we hold as adults. If non-disabled children interact with their disabled peers in camp and other settings, they will learn that disability is just part of the human experience. They will see that disability is not to be feared or stigmatized. They will see that each of us brings differences to the world that enrich our lived experience. They will become compassionate, kind adults who value and respect others and champion the rights of all.
It is my fervent hope that one day, the microcosm of society that Keshet and Camp Chi have created won’t be just a microcosm of how society should look and function.