My colleagues and I at the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) have been following with interest the special needs dialogue and debate that has emerged in recent months and weeks online.
Since last summer, when FJC and our colleagues at the Jewish Funder’s Network jointly organized three days of camp visits looking at nonprofit Jewish overnight camp through the lens of special needs and disability, our agency has plunged headfirst into a learning process that has, at turns, encouraged us, touched us, and worried us.
You may have heard about the survey that we have fielded in partnership with Laszlo Strategies. It seeks to gain an understanding of the overnight camp environments in which children with special needs are currently being served well, where the most significant gaps in service lie, and how we might move the entire field forward so that more children, notwithstanding their physical, emotional, or intellectual challenges, will be able to experience the magic of overnight Jewish camp. The Foundation for Jewish Camp has not entered into this learning process with any pre-conceived notions about the outcomes or the recommendations that will emerge from our survey. Rather, it is our expectation that a multiplicity of “inclusion” solutions will emerge; in our lexicon, “inclusion” does not define a camping model, it defines a vision where more Jewish children with special needs and physical disabilities will be spending all or part of their summers at overnight Jewish camp.
Indeed, supporting a diversity of camping models is a hallmark of the work we do at FJC. As a continental organization positioned to advocate for the field of nonprofit Jewish overnight camp, we work with and promote camps of every programming style, every movement, and every religious affiliation – all of these bringing a unique product into a marketplace where choice is of paramount importance. This ethos will be applied to any potential initiative(s) that may address special needs.
While participating in the joint FJC-JFN trip that has been so-often cited recently, many of us were moved deeply by the many wonderful camp programs that are serving a variety of children with a range of different challenges. We saw camp models that support children in specialized bunks who also participate in joint programming with the camp’s “typical” campers. We visited camps where small numbers of campers are living together in fully inclusive bunks with the support of additional counselors. And, we saw separate programs – those that might be classified similarly to Round Lake until summer 2013 – where children with special needs are living separately in their own communities with highly trained staff.
All of these models, it seemed to us, were worth exploring further and expanding – so long as they meet the diverse and unique needs of the children and their families who are looking for a summer camp experience. We look forward to sharing the findings of our study over the next few months. In the meantime, we are continuing to fulfill our mission of increasing the number of children experiencing Jewish camp and creating places where joyous Judaism is celebrated.
Abby Knopp is the Vice President of Program and Strategy at the Foundation for Jewish Camp which supports and advocates for over 150 nonprofit Jewish overnight camps across North America (www.jewishcamp.org). She lives in New York City with her husband and is the proud mother of three sons.