All campers win when kids with special needs come to camp

B’nai B’rith Camp has opened its arms in the spirit of community. Now in its second year, Kehila (Hebrew for community) integrates children with a variety of special needs into the summer camp experience.

Following inclusion models based in schools, Kehila positively impacts children with disabilities, instilling in them a sense of independence while inspiring empathy and awareness in their peers.

“Families accept differences, and camp is a big family where we learn to embrace what everyone has to offer,” says Dvora Mencher, inclusion specialist and retired special education teacher.

Mencher trained the Kehila counselors to modify their programs to suit individual needs and kept an ongoing pulse on the children.

“Growth can be seen in the smallest of steps. All children need to be celebrated at the level they are at, and when inclusion works, it’s magical,” she says.

Connections between campers and staff weave the magic of Kehila.

Diagnosed with Asperger’s, Zev Peterson participated in BB Camp’s overnight program and was able to self-manage. His counselors said he didn’t seem different from any other camper and was very responsible about communicating his needs.

“Zev loved camp, his counselors and the freedom of choice it gave him,” says Julie Braunsten, Zev’s mother. “We noticed a newfound maturity in him from the camp experience.”

Zev overcame his fear of fishing and skipped around the dining hall to celebrate his ninth birthday, when his cabin surprised him with a cake.

“Kehila fulfills the Jewish value of hachnasat orachin (welcoming the guest into the community),” says Michelle Koplan, BB Camp executive director. “Every child should have a Jewish camping experience and having a specialist on hand enables us to strengthen how we serve all types of children, whether they are special needs or struggling with homesickness.”

Diagnosed with Down syndrome, 8-year-old Gavin Mason is in his second year at BB Camp’s day camp program.

“Gavin’s smile is priceless,” says Tony Bui, BB Day Camp unit head. “This year he is immersed within the group.”

She says his peers gently include him and have innate compassion. They demonstrate acceptance by holding his hand, rolling him balls to throw and clapping at his achievements. In turn, Gavin giggles, jumps and loves riding in the speedboat.

“B’nai B’rith Camp has worked harder to reach out to Gavin than any place we’ve tried,” says Lynne Mason, Gavin’s mother. “This place is a gift – he is exposed to fun and useful activities. Last year the BB Camp social worker introduced him to a beneficial picture communication system. I hope his camp peers gain an understanding that will resonate for the rest of their lives.”

This year two boys who gained confidence at last year’s Kehila session returned to BB Camp for a three-week session. Sayer Freedman, age 13, has autism and arrived home mellow and happy last year, according to his mother, Carol Freedman. He has last year’s cabin photo hanging in his room and spent the year talking about camp and his two new BB Camp friends.

Kehila clearly provides a win-win experience for all campers, reinforcing the community spirit for which the camp has long been known.

Suzye Kleiner resides in Scottsdale, AZ, and loves spending her summers at BB Camp. She has enjoyed the positions of camp store manager, photographer and writer.

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