By Matthew Selvin
When I was a kid, summer camp was my life. Throughout the school year, snowstorms, and the boring day-to-day routine, all I could think about was camp. Camp B’nai Brith of Montreal was my childhood home away from home. It’s where I (and eventually my three siblings) would spend our summers. Every year, I would reconnect with the same group of friends after being apart during the school year, and without skipping a beat, we were enjoying each other’s camaraderie, inside jokes, independence, as we became immersed in a culture that was so familiar and comfortable.
Camp was a major part of my identity, and I want every Jew to have the same opportunity I did to connect with their identity.
Camp B’nai Brith of Montreal always provided an inclusive environment as far back as I can remember. Thinking back, I would always take notice of a handful of campers with special needs who had aids, or shadows, helping them around camp. But we rarely interacted or engaged in activities together. In retrospect, I probably noticed them because they had their own set of specific needs, but mostly because there was no designated place for them. When I was twelve, we shared our bunk with an eighteen year-old special needs camper who was there with his shadow. I found this peculiar since we never really engaged with them, even though they were living with us. Mostly, as a young camper, I just did not understand what they were doing there.
Over time, that exposure, and starting to “understand,” had an impact on my development. Today I work as a special needs consultant/behaviourist helping families develop strategies and skills to improve the quality of life for their kids with special needs. I feel I owe a major part of my career to my camp experience.
In 2018, Josh Pepin, Executive Director of Camp B’nai Brith Montreal, contacted me to work on a “special project.” He, along with “angel donor” Marilyn Takefman, shared a vision: to bring a special inclusion initiative to Camp B’nai Brith called “The Avodah Program.” They explained that they wanted to offer young adults with special needs who had aged out of B’nai Brith’s program the chance to return to camp for a real-world employment experience in a camp setting.
The Avodah Program is structured by ability-specific jobs for participants: they can work in the camp’s dining hall, helping kitchen staff and cleaning; in the office, sorting and distributing mail; in a in a bunk-placement working with kids; or in a specialty-placement assisting at various activities. The vision was a true win-win: in addition to all the practical contributions Avodah participants made, they would benefit from a variety of camp activities, such as swimming, land sports, bonfires, arts and crafts, music, and more. As young adults, they would also have an opportunity to experience a variety of social activities as a group outside of camp, such as mini-golf, movies, day trips, bowling, or going out for ice cream.
The Avodah Program has its own dedicated team of professionals who have experience working with the special needs population. This includes a paramedic, a physical education instructor, a speech and language intern, and a camp veteran who can answer all camp-related questions.
We quickly learned that Avodah is much more than just a work program, and has its own set of challenges. With participants living away from home for two valuable months, their emotional, behavioural, and functional needs must be supported. On a practical level, we must remain mindful of the tasks assigned to each participant according to ability, and how they are grouped together to ensure everyone’s success. On an individual level, we have to be meticulous when it comes to managing specific diets and medication schedules, and offer support to teach life skills and personal responsibility for hygiene and being organized.
Avodah participants have a very full schedule, which begins in the morning with the entire camp at the flagpole, and eating as a unit in the senior dining hall. Then there’s time in small groups for work placement until lunch. Rest periods after lunch are a special time for our unit because it’s a chance to hang out and bond in a relaxed atmosphere. In the afternoon we head to camp activities where we are typically integrated with mainstream camp units, followed by another working shift around camp.
After dinner, we have a unit debrief on everyone’s day. It is so amazing to hear their perspectives and receive feedback on all the tiny-but-not-forgotten moments that made their day so special. The evening activities often include “make me laugh” or “ask us anything” sessions. These moments reflect my own personal experience and the very things that made camp so special for me as a kid.
We are one of the only units in camp who build a campfire every night, no matter what. It has been a way for us all to come together and enjoy our time at CBB. Once a guitar was added to the mix, we would sing and dance, creating completely unforgettable moments. Seeing our diverse group, carefree and accepted, was absolutely beautiful. Everyone belongs and feels accepted. It’s priceless and beautiful. If it weren’t for the Avodah program, many of our participants would have never had such an experience.
Camp B’nai Brith of Montreal is truly a fully inclusive environment. The Avodah program finally provides individuals with special needs a designated mandate and placement in which they belong. It has been incredible to see our program interact with day-to-day camp life. Everyone from camp’s youngest campers to the specialists running activities for us to the administrative team are incredibly tolerant, compassionate, and appreciative towards our participants.
Our program has always felt the full support of Camp B’nai Brith’s community and makes a valued contribution to the overall quality of camp. It has been most empowering for our participants who feel an enormous amount of pride knowing they are contributing to the camp culture. My staff and I were immeasurably affected by the level of awareness we see it bringing to the rest of camp .
It is clear to everyone, and was from the implementation of Josh’s vision, that we are there to help with jobs that improve everyone’s Camp B’nai Brith Montreal summer experience. But we also help educate and desensitize the general camp population to an important part of who we are as a Jewish community. I never wanted anyone to feel confused or misunderstand as I once did as a young camper. Our Avodah members are valued, included and embraced. They belong. They are included and appreciated for who they are. They feel (and tell us that they feel) the stigma of being different lifted.
This summer we are planning our third CBB Montreal Avodah Program, and we have maintained close contact with all of our participants, who cannot wait to return. Executive Director Josh has made it a priority to ensure the success of the program for many years to come, being so personally involved and invested in this initiative. His hands-on approach at the camp level has provided the necessary resources and flexibility needed to allow us to work and be successful. His dedication and support has been invaluable to the continuity of the program. We have always moved ahead with a vision and a culture that gives participants a sense of dignity, respect, accomplishment, and friendship.
There are many special moments in camp that may or may not go unnoticed. For the CBB Avodah Program, the real mitzvah is simply the gift of camp; improving someone’s life by allowing camp to become part of their own identity.
Matthew Selvin has been a Special Needs Consultant/Behaviourist in Montreal for 17 years, and Camp B’nai B’rith Montreal Avodah Program Director since its inception three years ago. He grew up in Montreal, attending CBB Montreal.