By Jennifer Lieb
The Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA) developed its Inclusion program within MJCCA Day Camps, to ensure our stellar camp activities were accessible to all children in the community, regardless of ability. Our Inclusion program allows for children with special needs to participate in our camp programs alongside their typically developing peers.
Offering an inclusive camp experience not only takes the desire to better serve the community, but also a strategic plan. Creating a plan has successfully allowed the MJCCA Day Camps Inclusion program to support more than 150 children with special needs each summer. When inclusion is well managed, a positive experience is created for all children at camp.
After spending the last 10 years developing and executing the Inclusion program at the MJCCA, I have identified four necessary steps for making your summer camp a welcoming and positive experience for campers with special needs.
1. Hire an Inclusion Specialist
It is critical to involve a professional – someone with specific knowledge and experience working with individuals with special needs – to implement and support the program. Children with disabilities often have complex needs, so having an expert in the field provides a superior level of care. Just as you hire specialists to lead specific camp activities, your inclusion specialist will lead the Inclusion program. This person should help manage the off-season work, including communicating with parents, overseeing the intake process, and hiring the program staff, as well as being the inclusion lead during the summer. The inclusion specialist will also work with all camp directors to ensure that children with special needs can participate in all camp activities offered. Having the right person at the helm is the first crucial step to success. I also recommend a special educator, social worker, and/or therapist as great additions for a well-rounded inclusion team.
2. Determine your Parameters and Limitations
Start with answering the question: What will inclusion look like at our camp? While we want to open our camp programs to all children with disabilities, it is okay to look at your program and make decisions as to how you can best serve which children. Yes, inclusion is a broad term, and it seems that with the ever-growing range of diagnoses and challenges children are facing, there is no end to who may need extra support. To determine parameters, you must first define what inclusion can be at your camp. For example, in Camp Isidore Alterman (the MJCCA Day Camps traditional day camp program), many of the activities are on rough terrain, which could be too restrictive for a child in a wheelchair, so we offer alternate activities that are less limiting. Inclusion can’t work if it’s impossible for a child to participate, so you must figure out how to use the strengths and limitations of your camp.
You must also determine how independent a child must be to attend camp and if you have enough staff to provide individualized support. This is critical for campers to enjoy their experience and gain a sense of belonging. Finally, you should define how many children with special needs you can accommodate, based on resources and other factors. It is okay to start small, allowing yourself room to grow as you gain more experience. If you clearly define your camp’s limitations, it will be easy to communicate to an interested family why your program is not the best fit.
Step 3: Create an Intake Process
The intake process confirms the program and the child are a good fit for one another. Your inclusion specialist should play a key role in meeting and observing campers before camp begins. Ideally, this is done through school observation, when you can see a child in a more natural environment to see what supports they might need. If this isn’t possible, offer families a tour or a day to meet, where you can review IEP information and they can complete informational forms, so that you have a full understanding of the child’s background and needs. Opening the line of communication early helps families feel engaged and connected. Taking the time to meet and observe each child before they begin camp has been a game changer for our program. It has greatly enhanced our ability to set proper support in place prior to camp, greatly increasing each camper’s success.
Step 4: Train Staff to Create a Community of Inclusion
Training and education about disability awareness and sensitivity is the first step to creating a community of inclusion. During the off season, it is important to take the time to train your leadership team. Your camp leaders need to understand the importance of having children with different abilities at camp and the role these leaders will play in supporting inclusion. Once you have trained your leadership team, help them train and engage your entire summer staff. Your Inclusion camp staff should have extensive training about diagnosis, strategies, and supports. Your general camp staff should be trained on how to be sensitive to inclusion campers, while also encouraging and improving the interaction between children with and without disabilities. Teach your general camp staff to use person-first language and disability-aware communication skills. By running your camp in a disability-aware manner, you will create a community that is inclusive of individuals with special needs.
When you take the time to design an organized program that sets children up for success, inclusion has the potential to teach all those involved how to be more accepting, caring, and open to the differences around them. Each summer in the MJCCA Day Camps Inclusion program, we see children trying things that they never thought were possible, making friends, and experiencing the joys of summer camp like their peers. We strive for a culture where differences are celebrated and inclusion is valued by all.
Jennifer Lieb began her work at the MJCCA in 2009 as the Inclusion Specialist. She has seen the program grow to reach every department in the MJCCA and become an integral part of MJCCA Day Camps.