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Teaching self-care to counselors who work with campers with disabilities

jennafreeman_headshotGuest blogger: Jenna Freeman, a fourth-year Tikvah staff member at Camp Ramah in California. Jenna is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she is studying rehabilitation psychology, special education, and Jewish studies.

I distinctly remember the day at camp when I sat with one of my campers outside the chadar ochel while she struggled to make it from the meal to the next activity. Something about going from the meal to the tent gave her anxiety. The way she showed it, however, was through bouts of screaming, crying, and some not-so-kind words. We sat for what felt like centuries in the same spot. I tried everything to cajole her from her perch, but nothing I tried worked. I felt increasingly defeated as the minutes ticked by without any resolution. My supervisor ended up coming around the corner and said, “Jenna, tap out.” To “tap out” means to take a break or let someone else tackle the problem. This was a crucial moment in my development as a counselor in Tikvah [one of the Ramah programs for campers with disabilities]. It was when I started to understand the role that self-care plays in my job as a counselor to children with special needs.

In the Tikvah world, we want to feel invincible. We want to constantly stand at our campers’ sides and give them the best summer of their lives. We struggle to leave camp on our days off because we don’t want to miss a crucial moment—a new word spoken from a generally nonverbal camper or a memorable song at the annual overnight talent show. But this kind of dedication can often leave counselors drained.

In the caring professions, this kind of exhaustion is viewed as practically inevitable. We spend most of the day serving and thinking about someone else and their needs that we often forget to think about ourselves in the process. This can lead to burnout.

This brings me back to that day at camp when I sat defeated outside the chadar. I felt frustrated that it was not me who calmed my chanicha down—that I was not the one that got through to her. I later learned that it had nothing to do with me. For whatever reason, that camper needed to see a different face, hear a different voice, or see a different environment. The best thing I could do in that situation was to take a step back and give myself a break.

After that moment outside the chadar, I decided to focus a lot on using the tools I learned about how to care for myself and for others and pass them onto other madrichim and staff members. At the National Ramah Spring Leadership Training Conference last month, I attended training for staff members in the field of special needs camping, where I had the opportunity to lead a session about how to create a healthy lifestyle as a counselor in the care field. We discussed how important it is to ask for help from your team members and “tap out” when you need to.


Ramah California staff members gather at the
2014 Spring Leadership Training Conference at Ramah Darom

We also discussed some other ways that we can look after our own mental, physical, and emotional health needs, such as having a buddy at camp who will help remind you of your personal goals or finding a safe quiet space at camp to release your energies or rest.

At the end of the session, we took some personal time to create our very own health plans for the summer. Each participant had a chance to reflect on goals they have for the upcoming summer, whether in the categories of mental, physical, or emotional wellness. Additionally, they were asked to think of some outlets, people, or places they could go at camp when they felt signs of tiredness or exhaustion. Through collaboration, we came up with some simple ideas such as taking a Shabbat nap, speaking to someone they trust at camp, or doing some sort of physical activity. Overall, these plans will help the counselors better care for themselves and, as a result, their campers, during the upcoming summer. It’s important to note, however, that taking care of yourself is a virtue in and of itself, not merely a means to an end. It is something we must do whether we are in the Tikvah world, at school, at a job, or traveling.

It was really inspiring to learn with these dedicated caregivers who work so hard to provide their campers with an incredible summer. Though the needs of the campers may be significant, the counselors have needs too. It’s crucial that theirs are not forgotten.

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.

Leave a comment


  1. Stacie Funk

     /  June 12, 2014

    Great article Jenna!!
    Just showed Jonah your picture and asked him if he knew who it was.
    Big smile and said Jenna!!! 💜💜

  2. Cheryl Hersh

     /  June 12, 2014

    Hi Jenna! This is such a beautiful, well-written article. Good advice for all and nice to see how well you are doing- no surprise there!


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