Last week, I found myself wearing an oversized camp T-shirt, sitting on the back of a bus headed up to the mountains for a field trip with a bunch of squirmy but excited campers. It was a bit of an "How did I get here?" moment. After all, I am a full time occupational therapist working in early intervention, not an educator looking to bring in a summer salary. I paid my dues working as a junior counselor, then a counselor at numerous camps … but that was 18 years ago. I have two children of my own now, both campers themselves.
It is my commitment to inclusion for Jewish children with disabilities and differences of all stripes in all aspects of religious life that led me to pack my own water bottle and sunscreen and venture onto "the field," so to speak.
At the particular Jewish day camp I work at, it is currently Year Two of a formal "inclusion program." It started as an initial conversation between the director and myself, at a meeting last October. Before that point, she had already been mulling how to bring in more children with special needs to experience the magic of camp. I was already using my skills as an occupational therapist to provide trainings and adaptations to Jewish supplementary and early childhood education programs in the area. It made sense to keep the discussion going.
Last year, the program consisted of me, on site two days a week, feeling my way around. This year, I have gained an additional day and an incredible counselor on the ground, helping implement the plans and strategies. However, the most incredible growth I have seen is in the staff’s ownership in making sure inclusion happens. Everyone has their role to play in making things work. They took cues from my staff week training where I emphasized the importance of attitude (not the child’s attitude, but our attitude) in creating the supports that would make the camp season a success. I emphasized that we as a community are responsible, and I am just the messenger.
That being said, I am continuously stunned by what "being a messenger" is about: a million communications, large and small, are involved in making inclusion successful. I am constantly coordinating and relaying information and strategies between parent, director, division heads, outside support staff, specialists and counselors during my on-site and off-site hours. I am doing my best to think and plan a week or two or three ahead, even when it is virtually impossible to do so.
Gathering information and creating plans for a child requires skill, but also a commitment to the process of trial and error at the end of the day. There are no easy answers, no quick fixes and no magic tricks. However, so often the counselors and specialists on the ground don’t give themselves the credit they deserve for the reserves of creativity, patience and skill that they naturally tap into under these circumstances.
I’m still not entirely sure how I ended up here, singing the camp song and eating a cherry ice pop, but I am glad to be here and heartened to see the faces of the smiling campers who are along for the ride.
Jaime Bassman, MS, OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist with over a decade of experience in early intervention, preschool and school-based settings.Through her initative Azar: Occupational Therapy Supports for Jewish Learning, she provides support to Jewish schools and camps. Don’t forget to like Azar on Facebook to receive more information and resources.