Last week, the New Normal ran two posts by Rabbi Rebecca Schorr, who is very nervous about the coming summer. Her son Ben, who has Asperger’s, learned recently that his beloved self-contained summer camp, Round Lake, is moving to become part of a campus that contains four other camps. Ben and his buddies will still have their own bunks, but they will spend much of the day in mainstream activities and social settings. Rabbi Schorr concluded that the Jewish community needs both self-contained and integrated summer camps. Now, we’re publishing a Q&A with Shelley Cohen, one of the architects of the change and also a mother of a child with a disability. She spoke with the blog about why Round Lake is making this change and how they determined they are to make it work for Ben and his friends.
How did this move come about?
Last August, when the Foundation for Jewish Camp and Jewish Funders Network went on a tour of several camps [with disability programming], there was different feedback about each of the camps. Many of the people felt that although there was merit to camps like Summit and Round Lake [that serve only children with disabilities], overwhelmingly people who have been involved in the field for years felt that there was also true merit in seeing programs like Camp Nesher and Camp Ramah, where they saw children with disabilities truly integrating. The experience of camp can be elevated for both children with disabilities and neurotypical children if they are in an inclusive environment together. It takes more effort, but it is really worth it.
How did this feeling get conveyed to the camp?
In September, there was a board meeting for the NJY camps. I’m on the board. I reported back the feeling of the people on the bus vis a vis Round Lake, that inclusion is a positive thing. And many funders, who are very knowledgeable in the field of disabilities, feel that inclusion is the best way to go. The New Jersey Y camps felt that the setting they had in Round Lake was such that there would be no ability to create an inclusive environment, so the decision was made to move it to Milford and see what they could do to offer more inclusion there and still be able to maintain some of the self-contained aspects of their program.
Did any of those funders support the move directly?
At this point, no funding has been given. The camp needed to invest in Round Lake and the choice was either to maintain it as a self-contained situation or try to see if they could offer a self-contained element while creating supervised inclusion. In order to attempt to create an inclusive element and offer better programming to their Roundlake campers they chose to move the camp to their Milford site.
We ran a post from a Round Lake parent who is nervous about this change. What do you think of her post?
People in the disabilities movement say “Nothing about us without us.” The people with the disability and the family involved are the valid speakers. I understand her nervousness. I would feel exactly the same. But what I understood from her post was that she attempted to do inclusion in what was otherwise a typical camp setting with the support coming from her and her family who were working in camp. That is not an optimal setup. Knowing that it’s a great camp and nice people doesn’t necessarily make it work. Inclusion is a process that needs planning and leadership. It doesn’t just take place on its own. It’s a nurtured process that happens under people who have been trained.
What is involved in creating this kind of environment?
What Round Lake is trying to do is supervised inclusion, which means intensive educational staff training. And not only the Round Lake Staff, but the staff at the host camps. They are all being trained on how to “do inclusion.” The entire administration of the camps are being taught how to create that environment, so that it works.
People think inclusion just means including people with disabilities. It’s not. Inclusion means being in a supervised, staff-educated environment that knows how to cope with and deal with [a mix of] children with disabilities and neurotypical children and that is the key. All the staff is being trained together from the get-go so that they can coordinate their efforts.
There will be changes to the schedule, to the infrastructure … they’re creating a structure that will enable them to keep an eye on all the campers that are being put into inclusive environments. They’re going to be checking to make sure in every instance things are working out well.
Why should we create more inclusive environments? Why don’t we?
It’s very easy to pay lip service to the concept of inclusion. We all believe we should live in a more inclusive society. If you ask should camps be more inclusive everyone will tell you yes, sure they should. But if you put 10 musicians in a room and one’s the best cellist and one’s the best violinist and one’s the best flautist, the sound that comes out will be horrific until they learn to play together. You must put a conductor in the room who orchestrates them. Then you’ll hear a rhapsody that will put you in a whole other universe.
We need inclusion in society because it makes for a better society and in that same vein we need inclusion in Jewish camp because it makes for a better Jewish camp that makes campers live the Jewish values that are being taught.