Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion which fosters inclusion of people with disabilities through the Philadelphia Jewish community. She loves writing/editing for “The New Normal” and for WHYY’s newsworks. Her latest book The Little Gate Crasher is a memoir of her Great-Uncle Mace Bugen, a self-made millionaire and celebrity selfie-artist who was 43 inches tall and was chosen for this year’s Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month Book Selections. She’s recently shared an ELI Talk on Standing With Families Raising Kids With Disabilities and has released a journal designed for special needs parents.
When I was first invited to staff the new Tikvah inclusion program at Camp Ramah Darom and was asked to describe it, I said, “The Tikvah program provides additional support to campers who may not be able to succeed on their own.” Even though I had worked with programs for kids with disabilities in the past—both in schools and in summer camp settings—I realize now that when the summer began, I didn’t fully understand the meaning of support.
As the summer progressed, I realized that the support of campers in Tikvah did not only come from within the program. The outpouring of love and encouragement that the rest of the camp community provided for our campers was incomparable. The mikzo’im (specialty instructors) allowed my campers to try new activities and overcome many of their fears, whether they were climbing to the top of the tower or shooting a bulls-eye in archery. Staff members stood by my campers’ sides and cheered them on, allowing them to succeed and achieve many of their dreams. If my camper had an interest in hockey, the hockey instructor was always quick to offer us times to play or shoot around.
Support came from staff, but most importantly, from other campers. When the program began, I was very nervous to be living with campers who were being directly supported by the Tikvah program. I feared that many of the campers would not be accepting of those receiving support, but this was surely not the case. Campers immediately jumped into hanging out with my campers and invited them to play cards or chess. They engaged them in morning prayers, sporting events, swimming, meals, and nighttime programs. And the friendships they formed were truly genuine.
When I asked some of the boys who share a Shoafim (rising 8th grade) cabin with the campers supported by Tikvah about the program, they thanked me for the opportunity. One of the campers, Gabe, stated, “I have benefitted from living with the campers supported by Tikvah,” but when asked if he had changed as a result, he stated, “I don’t necessarily feel as though I am a better person, because they are boys just like me who happen to need a little more support.”
Gabe and many of the other campers who had direct contact with the Tikvah program felt this way. The Nivonim (rising 10th grade) girls who lived with girls supported by Tikvah explained that they thought the experience enriched their summer and that they were eager to see their new friends in the coming summers. Many of them are now keeping in touch with the girls who were supported by the Tikvah program and feel as though they have made lifelong friendships.
So when asked to describe the Tikvah program, I now say, “It means hope. It’s a chance to give kids who otherwise may not have the opportunity to gain a little confidence, courage, bravery, and self-assurance, and to make friends along the way.” It’s not the counselors who made the summer so meaningful; what made the summer memorable were the experiences the kids had with each other, making friends and learning new skills.
I was recently asked about my impact on the campers if they took home a new perspective, or if they changed as people. And although they have, what’s important to me is the impression they left on their peers. Many of the campers were so thankful for the opportunity to just experience the Tikvah program from watching it grow from day one, that I see how powerful the program is. Campers were always making an effort to be around the campers supported by Tikvah that it is heartwarming. It gives me hope for a brighter, more inclusive camping future.
Ali Katz, a Tikvah counselor at Ramah Darom, is a third-generation camper and staff alumna of Ramah Wisconsin. She also worked as a counselor at JCC Chicago Camp Chi/JCFS's Camp Firefly for children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Ali is a senior at Indiana University, where she is studying Elementary Education.
The Henry and Annette Gibson Tikvah Program at Ramah Darom is supported by generous grants from the Ruderman Family Foundation, as well as many other sponsoring foundations and individual donors.