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An amazing four days with colleagues in special needs camping

Guest blogger: Orlee Krass, National Ramah Tikvah Network Coordinator

At last week’s National Ramah Spring Leadership Training Conference, staff members from special needs programs at Ramah camps, Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) camps, and other Jewish camps joined together to share best practices and learn from one another. Although this is the fourth year of Ramah’s training program for staff from throughout the Ramah network of Tikvah and other special needs programs, this was the first time that staff members from different movements who work with children with disabilities have had the opportunity to participate in professional development training together.

Training for staff members who work with campers with disabilities

Participants in the June 2014 training for staff who work with campers with disabilities

During the conference, we shared our camps’ resources, ideas, and approaches to working with campers. Our work together enabled us to develop strategies and techniques to help children, teens, and young adults with many different types of  disabilities–from autism spectrum disorder to sensory processing disorder to ADHD.

Leslie Josel, an organizing consultant and ADHD specialist with “Order Out of Chaos,” led a very insightful webinar on the topic of executive functioning. Leslie described specific camper archetypes—campers who are particularly messy and those who lag behind the group, for example—and led a discussion about how to analyze camper behaviors in order to help them make changes. We talked about how behavior is a form of communication and how a camper who has trouble following directions might be signaling something other than waywardness. A messy camper might have trouble putting away her belongings because no one ever modeled this for her. The camper who wanders off to pick flowers might have trouble focusing.

Training for staff members who work with campers with disabilities

Session on sensitivity training and sensory integration

During another session, our group met via Skype with a panel of Ramah parents of campers with disabilities. Few camp staffers have the chance to meet with the parents of their campers during the summer, so this provided a rare opportunity for us to hear from parents about their concerns and hopes for their children. Several of the parents who participated in our panel had attended Ramah camps when they were young and want their children to have the same sort of experiences despite the challenges their children face.

Another highlight of the training was a session in which we modeled how to create unique tefillah opportunities for campers with disabilities, fondly referred to as “Tikvah Tefillah” at some of the Ramah camps. Click here to view a video of  “Baruch She’a March,” a play on “Baruch She’amar” (introduction to the morning prayers).

An important theme that recurred throughout the sessions is that every camper needs supports of some kind. We were encouraged to view each camper as an individual, and the sessions were designed to give us the tools to see how the need for supports occurs along a spectrum. It is not helpful to view campers according to the dichotomy of “typical” camper vs. “camper with disabilities”; some campers simply require more supports than others, and different kinds of supports than others.

The staff members from the other participating camps were excited to bring back ideas about how to do sensitivity training with their larger camp communities. Our sharing of resources, stories, and contact information will enable us to support one another during the camp season and beyond. One of our goals for next year’s training is to include URJ and other Jewish camps in the planning stages of the training so they can bring their experience and perspective into framing the sessions.

Rachel Dubowe of URJ Kutz Camp told us, “My time at training was incredibly inspirational, uplifting, and educational. This partnership between the URJ Camps and Ramah makes me so optimistic and excited for the future of special needs camping. With the passion of these two movements combined, we will soon be able to welcome any camper, regardless of their needs, into our camps’ holy and inclusive environments.”

We all share a common mission—to include as many children as possible in summer camping and expose them to Jewish experiences and community. By bringing everyone’s talent to bear, we can move toward the goal of making Jewish camping available and enriching for all children, regardless of denomination and abilities.

Training for the National Ramah Tikvah Network is supported by the Neshamot Fund of UJA-Federation of New York and the 2013 Ramah Israel Bike Ride and Hiking Trip. Additional funding from the Ruderman Family Foundation will facilitate planning and discussion around new developments in vocational education programs that will take place at four Ramah camps this summer.

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