These days, many high schools require teens to earn community service/volunteer hours to graduate. That’s easier said than done by any teen, and even more difficult for teens that aren’t neuro-typical. Parents of teens with disabilities have enough responsibilities without having to worry about how they will help their teen get volunteer hours.
Enter the Edlavitch DCJCC’s Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service’s Summer of Service Camp. With close to 30 years of experience putting together volunteer projects to help the DC community give back, and the expertise of amazing special education teachers, Summer of Service is a place where teens of all abilities can come together to strengthen the community and change lives. This unique program was co-founded by RespectAbilityUSA, with seed money from the Mizrahi Family Charitable Fund.
These middle and high school students — with and without disabilities — distribute food to the homeless, landscape for the homebound, and help clean up parks. During the weeklong camp experiences, teens find that they can make a difference and give back to their communities.
While learning about themselves and their communities, teens form bonds with each other and develop an increased understanding and awareness of diversity and individual differences. It’s an amazing lesson in B’tzelem Elohim, we are all made in G-d’s image.
The first day of camp begins at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a national park that focuses on preserving and improving the area’s rivers and wetlands. The park rangers teach the group how the wetlands sustained past civilizations with clean water, abundant food, medicine, and shelter. After a round of introductions, our work begins. We are given a set of tools and a location to help clean up. Without hesitation, we jump right into the fray and begin forming cooperative bonds that enable us to learn each other's strengths and differences. With the help of our teachers all of the teens are able to participate no matter their ability.
The week continues as the teens help out at a farm in Beltsville, Md., run by Bread for the City, that produces thousands of pounds of produce for homebound clients who do not have access to fresh produce. With a bit of teamwork we pick over 10 pounds of strawberries for the community. One of the campers remarks that she will “never look at a strawberry the same way again!” With an increased appreciation for food production and distribution, we head back to the EDCJCC for reflection on the day’s activities.
There’s a purpose for everything the teens participate in each week. It’s so important that they understand why they are cleaning a national park, and where the strawberries picked are going. And it’s the same when the teens work with Seabury Resources, an organization that assists seniors with the physical and financial demands of yardwork and housework. The campers learn that this service allows seniors to remain in their homes longer and to help them keep their independence. On some occasions, the seniors come out to thank us and tell us stories about their lives and community. Engaging in these discussions with the seniors is just as important and meaningful as completing the yardwork. At the end of the day, the students voice their feelings of accomplishment in their work, as they push themselves and experience personal growth.
The best part about camp is watching teens with and without disabilities come together as one cohesive team. Students learn to work together to solve real-world problems and complete challenging tasks with kavanah, intent, and purpose. Many teens come to camp thinking they cannot do certain things: they cannot use certain tools, they cannot be outside for extended periods of times, they cannot make friends with people who are different than themselves. However, what begins as a quiet week, quickly turns into lively discussions about common interests and memorable moments of working together. The teens learn new skills and give back to their community at the same time, taking an important step toward becoming part of an inclusive society.
Learn more about the logistics of Summer of Service through our RespectabilityUSA webinar Teen Pre-employment Experience for Youth with and without Disabilities.
Erica Steen is the Director of Community Engagement at the Edlavitch JCC of Washington DC.