What 13-Year-Old Boys At Camp Taught Me About Inclusion
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What 13-Year-Old Boys At Camp Taught Me About Inclusion

One of my primary responsibilities as the inclusion coordinator at URJ Camp Harlam, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Pennsylvania, is to make sure that campers with a disability (or a “different ability”) are set up for success at camp. We provide them with similar accommodations as the ones they have at home and at school, allowing them to experience camp to their personal best, in keeping with their abilities. This can often take careful planning, thoughtful conversations among partners, and communicating the right information in the right way to our counselors.

But there also are moments when inclusion and accommodation happen right before our eyes, without any interventions at all. That’s when we know that our community gets it – and that not only is this place ready to become a community that values inclusion, but it already is one.

I was fortunate to witness just such an event in one of our bunks this week.

A group of 12- and 13-year-old boys had requested to meet to discuss some of the challenges they’ve been having with a fellow camper who happens to have Asperger’s Syndrome. Although this camper had already shared information about his diagnosis with his bunkmates, the boys didn’t really know or understand what it meant, and they were struggling with how to respond to him when he exhibited idiosyncrasies related to his Asperger’s. At the same time, this camper had asked me to help him talk to his bunkmates because he could tell they were getting frustrated with him. So after a long day of rainy day activities and bunk togetherness, I sat down with a wonderfully reflective and sensitive bunch of teenage boys.

What unfolded in that bunk that day can only be described as magic. The group of boys was able to share, in a compassionate and thoughtful way, the struggles they were having, and their fellow camper was able to respond with confidence and courage. Together, we talked about how people with Asperger’s Syndrome sometimes respond to seemingly small problems with disproportionately large reactions, and so changes in routine can upset them – and because of this, they need extra patience and understanding from their friends and peers. The campers were both receptive to and appreciative of the information.

By far, though, the best part of the night was when each boy shared something they like about their bunkmate, giving him props for being brave, helpful, funny, and a good friend. The discussion culminated in a raucous, laughter-filled, 16-camper pile-up on one of the beds – with the camper with Asperger’s Syndrome right in the middle of it all!

Lori Zlotoff is the inclusion coordinator at URJ Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, PA.

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