On a recent sunny Thursday, the administration of Kulanu pulled out all the stops for its summer program participants. At a backyard barbecue party, camp officials featured Azamra, a professional DJ playing hits such as the incessantly upbeat “Rebbe Nachman” disco song, a familiar example of Israeli culture to most Five Towns Jews.
Some participants got up and danced, others moved to the music in wheelchairs. At this program for children with special needs, the campers and staff alike were enjoying the party to celebrate the warm summer’s day.
On a more typical weekday, the gym was alive with the sound of children playing “gaga,” an Israeli version of dodgeball played in a walled-pen (often made of tables on their sides, as in this case).
Based at the organization’s headquarters on Central Avenue in Cedarhurst, a former Catholic school, Kulanu aims to ensure that the children and young adults in the program would not miss out on this pastime, nor on any other part of a typical summer camp experience.
“They’re wonderful,” said Marlo Aballi, the mother of Sammy, a 7-year-old in his second year at Camp Kulanu, of the staff. “They’re very tuned in to the kids so the kids feel good enough to keep trying.”
Kulanu in Hebrew means “all of us,” and the program’s focus is on inclusion. It has a full-time school during the year, as well as afterschool and weekend programs. Jonathan Cooper, Kulanu’s director of inclusion and community Services, started the Kulanu summer program 11 years ago when he realized there was a need for children with special needs to be accommodated for a full camp experience.
In previous years it functioned as a “camp within a camp” at Hillel Day Camp in Lawrence; participating children would have “shadows,” or dedicated assistants, for individualized attention. But Cooper wanted to maximize the campers’ opportunity to socialize. When Kulanu gained its own facilities in 2009, a special-needs camp became more viable.
In addition to its regular staff members, the camp runs a paid internship program for teens and young adults who learn job skills that may otherwise be difficult for them to acquire. Kulanu has also partnered with local restaurants, such as Cedarhurst’s Off the Grill, to teach its participants, particularly its interns, how to cook.
Nori Abramson, a 21-year-old student at Long Island University, is an intern in the program, and has been inspired to continue working with children.
“This is a good first step” toward a career in special education, she said. “The program is a benefit.” At Kulanu the counselors and children have formed close bonds, regardless of religious background or handicap. “I’ve made friends that I didn’t expect to make,” said Abramson.
Aaron Wengrofsky, 19, of Woodmere, who starts Brandeis University in the fall, is spending his fourth summer as a Kulanu counselor. “The kids are great,” says Wengrofsky, who also works at Kulanu’s Sunday program during the school year. “I’ve known some of them for years. It’s a pleasure seeing their smiling faces every day.”
The campers at Kulanu participate in activities ranging from carpentry to dance. At camp, the students also learn self-advocacy and independence, while learning life skills as important as cooking or doing laundry. The campers also go on trips around Long Island and New York City to parks, pools and museums. There are social action projects on the calendar, too, such as a recent trip to a local beach to clean up litter.
There are 21 campers between the ages of 6 and 19, coming from as far as Brooklyn and Ronkonkoma in Suffolk County, or anywhere in between. They live with of disabilities such as autism, developmental disabilities and cerebral palsy.
Although a large portion of the campers and staff are observant, not everyone involved is religious, or even necessarily Jewish. However, camp activities are often Jewishly oriented, and there are services in the morning. Some of the older boys lay tefillin.
There is a high ratio of staff members to children as they go through their activities, watching over them, encouraging them to communicate and playing along.
Sammy loves coming back to camp. He has “a lot of fun at swimming,” says his mother, and enjoyed making his own Havdalah candle in his favorite color: red.
Stone, aged 12, likes art, cooking and playing video games on Wii, but “only the sports.” He also enjoyed dancing and baking challah.
Sammy is bused to camp all the way from the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, but his mother insists that it’s worth it.
“That was my big concern,” she said, “Knowing he’s with Jewish people and Jewish children.”
“He comes home every day with a smile on his face,” she added.
There are very few programs like Kulanu in the country, or even in the New York metropolitan area. There are few camps that are both geared towards Jewish children and children with special needs, and these are more likely to be sleep-away, such as that of the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. Day programs are usually smaller program within a mainstream camp, as in the case of Kulanu in years past. Given the camp’s success this year, its concept may expand or develop so that any child can have the full Jewish day camp experience, especially the socialization.
“It’s a model that can be adapted,” said Cooper.
The program is expensive and despite fundraising efforts, Kulanu could not afford to give out scholarships this year. Kulanu is still accepting donations to sponsor a student in August, or even next year, and will keep trying in the future.
For example, Kulanu has a yearly fair in Cedarhurst Park to raise money, and will also hold a gala on Aug. 11 in Island Park. But given the high expense of running the program, it may not be enough to help families that could not otherwise afford Kulanu.
“We would like to supply financial support for students,” admitted Cooper, but “it’s a problem.”
Meanwhile, the campers this summer will continue to kayak, cook and dance, and relax and make friends as at any other camp.
“It’s a special program,” said Cooper. “Kids are happy. Counselors are happy. That’s all I ask.”