One camp director’s perspective on the inclusion debate

by Noah Pawliger

I still recall stepping on the school bus the first day of first grade. I sat down next to a boy in the second row. Even at the tender age of six I somehow knew that you could only progress to the back of the bus with coolness and age!

My seatmate turned out to be my first friend at school. Twenty-six years later I am proud to say we are still pretty tight. My parents would question me when I told them about my companion. “Do you know that he is different from you in some ways?”

My response was something along the lines of, “Well, duh, he lives with his family in his house and I live with my family in mine!” They would ask if I had noticed that my friend wasn’t in any of my classes and did I think it was strange that I only saw him on the bus?

Well, no. I just knew that he was a nice and funny guy who happily scooted over when I climbed onto the bus. What I didn’t know was how rare it was to find such a loyal and easygoing friend.

He was my first real exposure to people with special needs. There wasn’t much to it – I just liked this sweet, uncomplicated guy. And I still do.

In later years I realized that my bus buddy helped open a door that led to lessons about unconditional love, overcoming challenges and appreciating wonder in everyday life.

Some may argue that without inclusion I would never have had the chance to identify an innate affinity for a population that would shape my perspective on life in fundamental ways.

I am days away from welcoming, G-d willing, the first special needs kids to Camp Living Wonders, a camp for Jewish kids with special needs, and the realization of a 20-year dream.

Unlike many fine camps, we (our board of advisors and my wife/business partner) and I have decided that, for the most part, our camp will not be “inclusive.” By that I refer to the practice of routinely integrating abled and differently abled kids into the same programming.

For years I worked in inclusion programs at camps and in recreation/sports settings, and in companionship programs. In 2007, I co-created and led a Taglit Birthright trip to Israel with Mayanot, a provider of Birthright trips, for young adults with special needs. We even saw two special needs participants get engaged and married from the third year! How’s that for Jewish continuity!?

From its second year, the trip incorporated volunteers without special needs. Why second year? We saw an opportunity for social growth of both participants and volunteers, because that’s where the growth was needed for that age group.

These experiences solidified a conclusion that has become a foundational tenet of Camp Living Wonders – Inclusion is fantastic, when it is effective.

Here’s an example of why I believe what I believe. It was a hot July afternoon at the large Jewish summer camp where I was serving as Special Needs Unit Head. Our campers and a “typical” (non-special needs) unit were participating in a group initiative.

The dynamic between the two groups started out as “hesitant engagement” from many of the “typical” campers. There were delicate words of encouragement from them. But, not surprisingly, what followed was not smooth compliance with the rules of the activity.

Before long the encouragement turned to subtle annoyance. “Come on already, dude!” I heard one of the “typical” kids whisper… “I could have passed that tire in three seconds!”

Then a frustrated “typical” camper approached my special needs kid and pulled the tire over his shoulder in an effort to move the activity along. I saw sadness in my guy’s face as he shrugged and moved along.

What happened there?

Which camper grew and achieved that day? Hardcore inclusionists will argue that both did because they worked together and advanced in the challenge.

Parents of the non-disabled might argue that their children grew because their level of sensitivity was raised. Parents of children with special needs would identify a missed opportunity – one more occasion on which their kid’s opportunity for achievement was basically bypassed.

Although these are not new issues, the question of inclusivity in summer camps and Jewish summer camps in particular has been openly aired this summer among camp leaders and funders. It is a good and honest debate because it will ultimately benefit the kids – all of them.

We maintain that there’s something larger at stake than summer camp. Countless families with whom I have worked have told me distressing stories of being asked to, “Please not bring your child to synagogue/religious school/youth programs/outings anymore because they are too much of a distraction.” And, being the uncle of a niece with special needs who has been shuffled from school to school, I understand their plight.

Others have heard the sad excuse, “We can’t create an entire Hebrew school program just for your child.”

At some point – and it seems to be now – we must ask a fundamental question. Is inclusion the only way? On one hand our sages teach “Do not separate yourself from the community,” (Avot 2:5) on the other hand we utter with a full heart, “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together” (Tehillim 133:1).

Which is the right direction? The road to unity and what I like to call tangible inclusion has eluded our people since the beginning of the Diaspora.

Whether it is denominational labels, political polarization in Israel, stigmas surrounding ethnicities, or overlooked families with special needs, the theme is all too apparent.

The Jewish community today needs to embrace and welcome each member at his or her level, and elevate them by bringing them to the table together, one person, one family at a time.

While there are fantastic socially inclusive initiatives during the school year such as Friendship Circle and Best Buddies, there are few camp opportunities for children with special needs to have a non-watered-down, Jewish summer camp experience, where growth takes center stage. And, sometimes, its OK to say, “this child needs their growth now and social growth later.”

Labels are for bottles, not for people, particularly not for Jews. At Camp Living Wonders we recognize that there are many community camps that make a valiant effort at inclusion.

Most are doing a tremendous job serving a population that thrives in such an environment. But what about those who need to achieve at their level, not the level of the “typical” cabin that’s thrown into the low ropes activity because they came up on the rotation.

When do those kids get a second chance? Who’s taking them back to try the activity again? Are their micro-achievements celebrated on a macro level?

Consider the tremendous success of specialty camps like Camp Twin Lakes, which hosts over 30 specialty camps for kids with debilitating illnesses, disabilities and challenges throughout the summer.

Such camps, which are more common outside the Jewish community, succeed in providing opportunities for special needs campers to feel they are among understanding peers. Is that wrong?

A participant with Cerebral Palsy on one of our Taglit Birthright trips described her experience at CP camp, “It’s the only place where I feel totally normal for a week each year.”

Can we have our s’mores and eat them too?

Camp Living Wonders’ approach may not be a traditional inclusion model, but it is exclusively built around our campers. We know how important it is for our campers to know that camp is non-judgmental, safe and theirs alone.

We are firm believers in inclusion for social growth, but when it comes to developmental achievement, we want our campers to climb the mountain at their pace.

We’ve chosen a model that achieves social inclusion through a youthful and engaging, qualified junior staff, which begins at 16 years of age, whose job is to love, encourage and befriend our special needs campers, as well as our older, professional staff as well, who are there to foster and ensure that the environment is one of love, encouragement, support, Jewish pride, and opportunities for achievement. As our campers age and grow out of being campers, we look forward to their graduating to staff and experiencing social inclusion where it counts. The result is trust and a powerful sense of belonging.

And, while our campers will be making friends that will last a lifetime, their growth and achievement will be tailored to their abilities.

Where learning to make a s’more, or swimming further than five feet on their own may seem rudimentary to a “typical” child, our campers will not only celebrate the taste, and the independence, but the newly acquired skill. These feelings will accompany our campers back home where they will be more engaged, more eager to jump in and better able to help others shed the stigmas and assumptions that cloud their own bright futures.

Noah Pawliger is director of Camp Living Wonders