August 14, 2017: the last camper had left camp and a few hours left before staff party. I walk back from the parking lot and try to sum up this last month in my head. I was told it would be a meaningful experience but no one could have really prepared me for this adventure. I try to put things in order, to remember the difficult and joyful moments, to recall smiles on faces and fatigue at the end of the day. It took me over three months to finalize writing my summary. The reason is that as time went by, I realized how much one month with 16 special needs campers had changed my life.
To try to comprehend this month, I would like you to imagine Camp Ramah in the Poconos as a theme park and you, as visitors to the park. Everyone has previous, different experiences based on their character, on the company with which they travel with and on which rides they choose to go on.
My first year coming to this theme park was summer 2000, when I was 5 years old. For 13 summers I kept coming to the same park, with the same friends and enjoyed the same rides. Every year I was exposed to another part of the park which was age depended, until I got permission to walk around freely at all different areas of the park. Every year I tried new things but also went on the same rides I was used to. At the end of each summer, my friends and I always shared same experiences, issues and memories.
But then summer 2017 arrived. I suddenly discovered another part of the park: it was still the same amusement park but that one part had some slight changes. The scenery, people, food where all very familiar but the rides were a bit slower and sometimes they were more overwhelming. To get there one had to stay away from the main path, the familiar, known one. By staying there one had to give up visiting other very much loved parts. Longtime friends are not present there, the change is a bit intimidating.
I had envisioned summer 2017 as a summer where I return to my favorite amusement park on earth, do my favorite things, enjoy being around friends I love. But things not always go as planned…
I started the summer as the head of the drama department–my “dream job” since I was a camper. I was anxiously waiting for my release from The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) with a plan to return to camp as a significant staff member, working with campers on Hebrew plays and spending much time with my long time American camp friends. I was offered a job with Yedidim but as a drama major in high school I felt more comfortable professionally.
On the first day of camp, when all campers arrived, I met Natan. His two sisters arrived as full summer campers. I knew Natan from Tikvah family camp when he came with his parents (and sisters) as a special needs camper. I walked around camp with him and when it was time for him to leave I found It hard for me to say goodbye to him. He returned for a weekend with his parents. This second visit made me ask to be part of Yedidim staff for second session.
Staff training week was very challenging as I was still busy with play rehearsals. Nevertheless, I was looking forward for the arrival of our special campers, including Natan of course. First evening already posed a challenge. Few of the boys asked to take a shower. I had no clue how we should go about it. We gradually developed a system where one counselor was helping them undress, one was helping in the bathing process and the third was helping them to dress up. It proved to be a great system and we were very proud of the successful execution!
Natan happened to love Michael Jackson music. We ended up hearing his music 24/7. In one of his songs Jackson says “But, if you’re thinkin’ about my baby It don’t matter if you’re black or white”. Something I’ve learned this summer when livings with campers with special needs is that no matter what challenges these campers face, they have similar characteristics to those of their peers. They will try to fool you in order to get another five minutes of iPad and they will make up excuses in order not to participate in prayers or activities that bored them. Learning to be assertive, consistent and even tough at times was also a process of learning for me. Like all children, our special needs campers needed to know the boundaries and accept authority.
Shabbat – “Yom Menucha”- a day of rest, not for a Yedidim counselor! The small quantity of planned activities in comparison to the daily full regular schedule left us with a lot of free time where we had to entertain our campers. I barely had time to relax or meet my friends. My 90 min. daily break was used for “make up” night sleep as my nights were always short due to staff meetings or shmira at night and early arousing by a camper jumping into my bed…
This month was like an emotional rollercoaster with ups and downs, twists and turns. I had the pleasure to work with two other male counselors- Aaron and Yoav. Aaron is a friend of mine since being campers together from age 10. He was very much liked by the campers and he showed them much love. Yoav proved to be a very mature, responsible, tolerant young man. After Aaron left we functioned like a set of parents for the campers. I was very lucky to have the advantage of working at camp with my mother. Being an expert in working and teaching children with different special needs, she was a constant source of information, advice and problem solving and general support. Her professional conduct was a source of knowledge and motivation for me at all times.
Back at the theme park, it was a closing time. Friends got together to share experiences and compare rides. I know that my ride was very different than that of my friends. My experience was very challenging but none the less satisfying and growing one. It was a memorable ride. Not everyone may want to get on; I know I would certainly do!
Oz Isseroff lives in Jerusalem.