“You can do it!!!! You’ve got this!!!” Those are probably my very favorite words from last summer. Those were the chants of a group of campers as they cheered on a fellow camper who challenged his own fears by climbing to the top of the climbing wall. This camper pulled me aside earlier in the day and asked if I could make it a point to be there to watch him when he planned to scale the high climbing wall. My heart felt like it was going to burst as I watched this young camper and even more so to watch the sincere encouragement from his peers. There are many things that describe this amazing camper; he is sweet, brave, funny, and also Autistic.
The summer of 2016 will be my seventh summer at JCC Rainbow Day Camp and my sixth summer as the Shiluv director. Shiluv is the Hebrew word for integrating or combining. It is the perfect word to describe the goal of staff who work with campers with some special needs. Our Shiluv, or special needs, program is so unique and such an incredible thing to be a part of each summer. Let’s see if I can attempt to describe just how amazing of a program we have.
Our program includes campers who have a physical, behavioral, or an emotional need that requires a little more attention compared to some of their peers. Many of these Shiluv campers have an aide whose priorities include the safety, fun, and integration of the camper. As with all the campers, our focus is to build the self confidence of the camper. A camper who has an aide will be completely integrated with his peers and the aide works to modify activities when needed, be a friend, and work as a sort of bridge to help the Shiluv camper make friends. We have the program Bonim Leaders with teens and adults who get to take advantage of camp activities, swim every day, and participate in some leadership and service learning projects. Adolescent and teenage Shiluv campers are in groups based on their needs. They are in groups with other Shiluv campers and are integrated throughout the day for swimming, lunch, and all sorts of other activities. So when I stop in activities such as the climbing wall, canoeing, kickball, tennis, archery, bracelet tying, and fossil hunting, I always have to search for Shiluv campers amongst the group of campers having fun. It is our goal as a camp for as much integration as possible.
The Shiluv program at Rainbow Day Camp is truly something incredible and I am honored to spend so much time with some amazing campers and staff. One of my favorite memories includes an adult camper with Down Syndrome receiving a call in the middle of the camp day that she was accepting into college. Campers screamed with excitement and many staff cried with joy. Another heartwarming memory is when a staff called in sick and was worried how her nonverbal Autistic camper would navigate the day without her. I later found out that there was a tough time early in the morning for the Shiluv camper. The boys in his group instinctively stepped in with playdoh and some fidget toys to help him when they saw him becoming upset. These are my favorite camp moments; when we see how our program is not just an amazing place for campers with some specials needs, but for all campers. It is so rewarding to see campers have empathy for others and accept peers who have some differences. It is incredible to witness campers looking out for each other and all campers feeling like they find acceptance and belonging. Last summer was full of great memories and I can’t wait to see all the adventures I get to be part of in the summer of 2016 at Rainbow Day Camp.
Special Needs Director