Editor’s Note: In this piece, Matan co-founder Meredith Polsky sings the praises of the inclusive Jewish summer camp where she works – and sends her children – during the summer. A follow-up from a camp administrator will describe the various elements that must be in place to create such a program: culture, funding and a lot of hard work. Stay tuned.
During the summer, I have the great privilege of working at one of the first inclusive Jewish summer camps in the country. The Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington has been a model of inclusion for over thirty years. Every child is welcome, no matter what the disability. We have campers in wheelchairs, campers with feeding tubes, campers with Down Syndrome and Autism and Rett Syndrome, just to name a few.
Each one is included in a group with typical campers and has their own 1:1 counselor within that group (at no additional cost to the families). As the camp social worker, I have somewhat of a bird’s eye view of this incredible program. Because the directors of the inclusion program are year-round employees, my role is focused more on the “typical” campers’ day-to-day experiences. I can watch the children with special needs and their incredibly dedicated teenage counselors and marvel at this Jewish organization that has gotten things right.
I know that the parents of these campers are grateful for their children’s summer experience – for many of them, it is their only chance to be with their siblings, or their typically developing peers. But as a parent of “typical” kids, it is I who feel grateful – to these families for sharing their children with us.
Last Friday, having finished our first full week of camp, I was driving home with my three kids. My daughter (yes, that daughter!) asked, “Mommy, do you know the girl in my group who uses a wheelchair?” Hesitant to define a child by their use of a wheelchair I asked, “What’s her name?” “Sarah*,” she said. “Oh, yeah, I know Sarah,” I said. “I like playing with her, “ Lucy continued, “and I think she really likes me. You know what, Mommy? Sarah can’t talk. But she smiles a lot. When she smiles, or even just opens her mouth, I know she’s happy.”
Lucy gets anxious about standing out from the crowd. A few days earlier, she told me she hates herself because she looks five instead of seven (turns out there was an issue on a camp trip, where she wasn’t tall enough to go on certain water slides). We’ve had months where she’s begged to turn her straight blond hair into brown curls to look like “everyone else,” and there has been plenty of school anxiety where she is convinced that everyone understands something that she doesn’t. Her history with social anxiety, in particular, makes her very aware of what is going on around her. While some children have trouble reading social cues, Lucy is sometimes perceptive to a fault.
But Lucy rises above her anxiety to befriend Sarah, who most definitely stands out from the crowd, and with whom Lucy has to do all the talking. In their moments together, none of that seems to matter. These two 7-year-old children are demonstrating what all the best research tells us:
Inclusion provides opportunities to experience diversity of society in general and of the Jewish community in particular.
It develops an appreciation that everyone has unique abilities.
It develops sensitivity, respect and empathy, as well as feelings of empowerment, and the ability to make a difference.
Lucy and Sarah never read that research, though. They just like being friends.
Meredith Englander Polsky co-founded Matan in the year 2000 and currently serves as the Director of Training and Advocacy. She holds graduate degrees in Special Education and Clinical Social work and, in 2001, was one of eight national recipients of the first fellowships awarded by Joshua Venture: A Fellowship for Jewish Social Entrepreneurs. She currently resides in Gaithersburg, Maryland with her husband and three children.