We are happy to share this interview between Howard Blas and Alex Cohen, a participant in a supported employment program at Camp Ramah in New England. Some graduates of the vocational training program for young adults with disabilities are hired for positions at the camp and are supported by job-site supervisors and our director of staff support. The program also provides assistance to some staff members who have not previously attended camp but would benefit from a similar level of support.
Continuing its ongoing support of Ramah’s vocational programs, the Ruderman Family Foundation has granted $150,000 over three years for vocational education to, in addition to Ramah in New England, camps in California, Wisconsin and Canada. The foundation also encourages vocational inclusion programs at other Ramah camps.
HB: Please introduce yourself and share about what you do at Camp Ramah in New England (CRNE).
AC: I am Alex Cohen and I work in the Gan and I teach sports skills to the Gan and to the Amitzim. In the Gan I work with campers between 1.5 to 8 years old who have parents who work at camp as well. Amitzim are multi-aged campers who have special needs and require some assistance.
HB: How long have you worked at CRNE?
AC: This is my third summer working at Camp Ramah in New England.
HB:How did you hear about CRNE?
AC: I didn't go here as a camper or go to Jewish overnight camps as a kid, but my roommate's sister worked here for many years and I found out about it through her.
HB: What do you do here?
AC: In the Gan I help with the daily tefillot (prayers) and take the kids to specials such as rikud (dance), cafe Ramah (canteen), or shira (music). I teach pillow polo to the children who are 4 and older. I also teach sports to the Gan, and those sports are conventional as well as made-up sports using my creativity. For example, Kan Ball is a game I introduced which is a combination of kick-ball and hand-ball. I create new games for the campers because kids have a tendency to become bored with constant repetition of the same thing. As a sports staff member I also do basketball with Amitzim. I modify the game to match their individual skill levels. My goal is for them is to experience success in sports while injecting fun.
HB:What were your feelings or concerns about getting a job here?
AC: I hadn't worked extensively with the middle school age range but looked forward to the challenge. I had also never worked at such a large organization.
HB: How are you supported at camp?
AC: If I need help with organization or scheduling, my job coach provides me that service, or if I have innovative ideas on work logistics, I run it by her. My first summer, the job coach situation was somewhat chaotic in that there was no one particular point person, but as of last year I was assigned to one job coach which made for more consistency. It is also very reassuring that she looks out for me and wants the best for me and enables me to have my voice heard.
HB: What do you do to make sure that you are successful at your job?
AC: In general, if there is something I'm not sure about, I always try to get clarification. It is better to ask too much than too little. I'm not embarrassed to ask for help. I also have many strategies to help insure there is minimal stress throughout the day. I have seven or eight go-to things. For instance, I play games with the Gan kids, which always makes me happy. Because seeing them do well while having fun gives me instant gratification. There are other relaxing or fun activities I do such as listening to music, learning new things like foreign languages and working out in the gym.
I always strive to be very organized. I like to always have a plan, so if I write down a schedule or enter it on my phone calendar, I can frequently refer to it. I also don't like to have a lot of down time. I do think that sometimes it is out of my control if there isn't a lot going on (like on Shabbat). But I use strategies such as finding other people who need help, so that helps me stay busy.
HB: And what do you do to make sure you are successful finding your way through the living environment at camp?
AC: I eat healthy foods and that makes me feel better throughout the day. It makes me have more energy. I try to get to know as many people at camp as I can — campers, counsellors and parents. Building a lot of relationships can be helpful. People want to know who their kids are working with, and it makes them feel comfortable to know I am willing to work hard and do whatever I can to make sure their child has the best day possible. When I am aware of someone new, I introduce myself and try to find one thing I have in common, even if it means I need to delve further and learn more about that topic.
HB: What advice do you have for others who want to get a job at camp and may need some behind-the-scenes support?
AC: The big thing is not to be afraid to ask for help. And also to realize that what goes on at camp is not under your control, and sometimes you have to go with the flow. It's important to be flexible at times and realize that there is grey in the middle for anything you do in life.
HB: How have you benefited from your camp experience?
AC: I became a gym teacher, an after-school teacher, as well as a kindergarten classroom aide after my fist summer at camp. Such a valuable thing was having lots of experiences to share during my interviews regarding my camp experiences, which illustrated my creativity and problem-solving skills when working with children.
I’ve met people from many different states as well as all over the world. I'm learning about new cultures and customs. I find this new exposure fascinating — knowledge is power.
I think it is important that when you are working at a new environment or in a new situation, that you want to be as positive and happy as possible, because people will feed off of that energy … . People appreciate someone who takes extra time to make them feel comfortable. It is an amazing feeling to uplift someone's spirits.
Howard Blas was the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England and is now director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network. Howard also serves as a teacher of Jewish studies and bar/bat mitzvah preparation to students with a range of disabilities and “special circumstances.” He holds masters' degrees in both social work (Columbia University) and special education (Bank Street College of Education). Howard received the S’fatai Tiftakh Award from Boston Hebrew College’s Center for Jewish Special Education in 2012 and the 2013 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. He writes regularly for many Jewish publications.