When most people think of the New Jersey YM-YWHA Camps they likely think of their specialty summer programs designed to develop skills in sports and other areas. After all, former Yankee Ron Blomberg, NBA basketball coach Herb Brown, and Olympic swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg teach at their camps. But this year, in addition to baseball, basketball, swimming, soccer, tennis, ceramics, painting, jewelry making, astronomy and cinematography the NJY camp also included a first-rate experience in inclusion of campers with disabilities.
This happened because of a merger in which one NJY Camp, Round Lake, integrated its campers into other camps. Round Lake was a successful camp for children with Aspergers, ADHD and other issues, but starting last summer, its campers attend other camps. This was the largest merger of a program for children with disabilities and without disabilities in America. It set a standard for others to follow.
There is no way to overstate the importance of this, both to the children going to the camp and as a role model for other institutions. For the first time ever, there was real integration for these kids. They were able to live in a world that reflected the demographic reality of God’s creations. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a regular blogger and the co-founder of the non-profit advocacy organization RespectAbilityUSA, spoke about the merger with Len Robinson, the CEO of NJY Camps.
JLM: So, you did this huge thing. That makes you special. Please tell our readers and me a bit about yourself and your involvement as a Jewish professional.
Robinson: Thank you for your kind words. This is my 22nd year as director of NJY Camps, 32 years as an Executive Director and my 47th year in Jewish Communal Service. Each one of us who is an Executive Director or President/CEO always must be in touch with the current needs of the community, and adapt our agency to those needs. However, this is not about me, it is about the systemic change to our organization by our entire NJY team. It is the buy-in by senior professional and board leadership that ensured this success.
JLM: Why did you decide to combine these two camps, even though so many people said it couldn’t be done?
Robinson: It was the right thing to do. We realized that we had fallen behind. We already had a full staff for Round Lake Camp that was in place and is highly trained and skilled in working with children with special needs. We also have a history of inclusion in our Camp Nesher and Camp Shoshanim.
JLM: How do you decide what kids/disabilities you can serve, and who you can’t? What are the factors that lead to those decisions?
Robinson: We used the same criteria that we had used when Round Lake was a [standalone camp for children with disabilities.]
JLM: What do you do in your application/intake forms to help you decide if your camp is the right fit for a kid, and to prepare to meet their special needs if they have a disability?
Robinson: Our interview process has always been in place with the child and the family by a member of our Round Lake leadership team.
JLM: Are parents honest with you about the issues that their children face? Why/why not?
Robinson: In all of our seven camps we have some parents that our honest with us and some who are not. Those parents who share the truth enable our staff to give the child a better experience than those who hide information.
JLM: What did your board go through over this process?
Robinson: There was much support for the move, combined with a great deal of thoughtful discussion.
JLM: And your senior staff?
Robinson: The Chief Operating Officer and our Director of Special Needs programs helped develop a staff training strategy for all of our executive and senior leadership.
JLM: What training had to be done?
Robinson: We developed a four-tier approach: executive Leaders, senior leaders, mid-level supervisors and direct service staff. Over 65 hours were spent with executive leadership training on attitudes, knowledge and skills.
JLM: What costs did you incur to make all this happen?
Robinson: Capital improvements to the site, allocation of staff resources and program modifications.
JLM: Will any of that money come back in terms of expanded registrations or donations, or is it a money loser?
Robinson: We developed a fiscally responsible plan and are currently meeting those goals.
JLM: Would you do it again if you had the decision to make over again? Why/why not?
Robinson: Absolutely. It is the right thing. In fact, it is the best decision that I ever made professionally. Everyone on the NJY team is very proud of this decision and the outcome.
JLM: What were the surprises that you uncovered in this journey?
Robinson: A high percentage of families who had previously sent their children to an exclusive camp really wanted an inclusive environment and kept them in Round Lake Camp. Campers and young staff, under the age of 30, see this as normal. Parents of typical children accepted the new normal with grace and aplomb.
JLM: How do you decide when to combine the kids, and when to keep them in more distinct populations?
Robinson: Each camper has an individual program that matches each of the camper’s needs. Individual programs were monitored and changes were made as needed.
JLM: What generational issues were there with your staff and board?
Robinson: … regardless of the age, we found that if they had experience with a family member with special needs, or in the field, they had no issues. If this was their first close exposure, there was support for the program and concern about doing it the right way
JLM: And what differences were there in terms of kids of different ages?
Robinson: No significant differences.
JLM: What advice would you give to other CEOs of Jewish non-profits who are looking at inclusion?
Robinson: This is the new normal. I encourage every CEO to examine this issue, step forward and do the right thing. We take better care of each child in all of our camps because of this change. We are a better agency because of this.
JLM: Thank you for this interview and for what all of everybody from NJY and Round Lake did to make this merger possible!
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the president of RespectAbilityUSA.org, a non profit working to enable people with disabilities to achieve the American dream. Dyslexic herself, she is a proud parent who knows the challenges of raising a Jewish child with disabilities.