Like at any other camp, the typical children at Camp JCC make friends and then go home and ask for playdates. But here, they never mention that their new friend uses a wheelchair or may not speak. Just last week, two nine-year-old girls played Barbies, danced to Justin Beiber and ate pizza together on a playdate they requested after meeting each other at camp. One uses a wheelchair. Our campers teach their parents about tolerance, respect and dignity.
Our camp is what it is today because since 1979, the JCC of Greater Washington has provided summer programs for children with disabilities. Back then, this was accomplished through separate programs. Throughout the years, we brought more and more children with disabilities into the main camp, and since 1995 we have offered a fully inclusive camp experience for everyone, ages 4-13. The children with disabilities each have their own counselor, a teen or young adult who facilitates social interactions, manage behavior plans, adapt activities to their camper’s needs, and support campers with physical needs – all while singing songs, dancing, cheering and having fun.
From ages 13-21, campers with disabilities can continue at camp in a self-contained group where typical peers serve as one-one counselors. These campers participate in all the Camp JCC activities alongside our other campers as well as in community field trips twice a week.
The inclusion program at Camp JCC has become a cornerstone of our community. It has garnered the support of the special needs community, professional staff, lay leaders and parents of children with and without disabilities. In the face of funding challenges, inclusion at Camp JCC has never been at risk because the value to society has a direct impact on facilitating acceptance of all people. 18 percent of our campers or almost 1 in 5 campers have special needs. To us, this pivotal interaction is a “window” into the real world that every child and eventually adult faces in their lifetime. The camp does not charge more for additional services.
It takes a community to offer this important program. Funding is provided by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, two local family foundations, The Bender Family Foundation and The Annette M. and Theodore N. Lerner Family Foundation, the community at large and our annual Dinner of Champions, which honors local Jewish athletes while raising critical funds necessary to operate the inclusion program each summer.
Inclusion is a core value of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington and a significant source of pride as it informs everything that we do. Parents understand that if we are going to go to such lengths to accommodate children with disabilities, their “typical” children will also be safe, nurtured and cared for. Parents who can choose from many camps tell us that our devotion to accepting all campers adds real value for them.
Amazing things happen here every day because we are willing to say “Yes!” We say yes to the typical camper, the camper who uses a wheelchair, we say yes to the camper who is non-verbal and we say yes to the camper who has severe social anxiety.
Camp JCC is a place where everyone belongs, everyone is welcome and all things are possible. As our tagline states, Camp JCC is truly “the place to be.”
Heather Strauss holds a Bachelor’s degree in Special Education, a Master’s degree in Education and Human Development. She has worked at the JCC of Greater Washington since 1994. She has spoken nationally on the power of inclusion and positive behavior management practices. She lives in Germantown, Maryland with her son and dog.