by Diana Blank Epstein
Approaching the entrance of the PJCC, visitors are greeted with our guiding principles etched upon the pillars. One of these is Hachnasat Or’chim, which means “welcoming all” in Hebrew. I experienced this inclusivity up close when my husband and I registered our young son, who has special needs, for his very first “TYPICAL” camp experience—an experience that ended up exceeding all expectations.
Our family has enjoyed a long history with the PJCC. As young boys, my husband David and his brother attended camp when the PJCC was located in Belmont, and our daughter, Rachel, now 9, is a preschool graduate. That’s why this past summer my husband and I were overjoyed to witness Rachel and her 6-year old brother, Joshua, create their own positive memories at Camp Keff. Our son has autism and, like many children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), he is constantly working on developing his language, fine motor and social skills with a variety of competing sensory needs.
When I first approached Camp Keff Director Ian Israel and mentioned our interest in camp, he encouraged us to register and extended the invitation to other special needs families as well. His welcoming approach and supportive attitude put our minds at ease since we wanted to do everything possible to ensure that Joshua had a safe, fun, and positive camp experience. Before camp started, two meetings were held to address Joshua’s needs. The first meeting included Joshua’s case manager from his Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) agency, Gateway. This is the agency responsible for providing Joshua with a one-to-one aide at all times during camp. Without this support, Joshua wouldn’t be able to attend camp since he sometimes runs off or engages in unsafe climbing. Gateway and Camp Keff developed a terrific team approach that was critical in helping day-to-day logistics run smoothly for Joshua and all staff involved.
The second meeting included David Neufeld, PhD, Director of Special Needs at Jewish Learning Works, Joshua’s assigned Camp Keff counselors, and Jenalyn Villanueva, the Kindercamp head unit. We discussed additional arrangements for making the camp process run as smoothly as possible.
Throughout the summer, Ian and his staff constantly reassured us that Joshua’s camp experience would be awesome and whatever came up, they would handle it. “We’ll go with the flow” was Ian’s mantra. Trust me, those words are meaningful for parents who carry the additional stress of having a child where so many elements are unpredictable. Knowing that we were leaving our boy in a setting where he was cared for, wanted, and welcomed, was a special gift my husband and I will always be appreciative of. From swinging on ropes and running obstacle courses to climbing rock walls, learning to swim, and initiating interactions with peers and counselors, we watched Joshua flourish and thrive. Although he couldn’t communicate this in words, he knew that at Camp Keff he felt accepted and loved for who he is. Just recently, his special education teacher told us that Joshua’s speech, attention, and class participation have significantly improved compared to the last school year, and we attribute this to his camp experience.
This Inclusive community went out of their way to welcome Joshua and made him feel like any other child experiencing the joys of summer camp.
And, as the parents of this lovely boy, this was perhaps the greatest gift of all.