One of the most enjoyable parts about directing Camp Ramah in the Berkshires’ Breira Program is the opportunity to engage in “creative problem solving.” Since so many resources are devoted to this special program, we have the luxury of tailoring our program to the unique needs of each individual. This summer we saw a beautiful example of how this approach enabled the first camper in our program to complete his Gesher summer.
Joshua started Camp Ramah in Nitzanim, as a rising fifth grader. For the next five years, he returned to camp for one session every summer. Josh never stayed a full summer as we were concerned that the energy required to negotiate the fast paced, active, highly social camp experience would deplete his resources, as is the case with most of our campers in the Breira program. Rather than pushing campers towards staying the full summer, we prefer to send them home when they are feeling successful and good about themselves. Such was the situation with Josh. Even going into his Gesher summer, our assessment was that Josh still was not ready to stay the whole summer.
All of us know that the rate of growth of children can be uneven and unpredictable. Josh returned to camp this summer, displaying a level of maturity we had not seen previously. His ability to interact appropriately with peers had soared; he no longer incited conflict among his bunk mates, and he had learned to regulate his emotions appropriately. We were delighted to see the degree of seriousness and commitment Josh brought to his work as a CIT, as well as his ability to make positive contributions to the various camper planning committees that are a part of the Gesher experience.
Josh understood that he was limited to staying at camp for only one session, but he was not happy about it. He desperately wanted was to be allowed to stay through Gesher’s three day trip to Washington D.C. After meeting with all parties involved, a decision was made to allow Josh to extend his time at camp and participate in the trip. However, once he returned from a successful trip, he started to self-advocate that he be allowed to stay the full summer. Once again, we assessed the situation and the decision was made that Josh would be the first camper in the Breira program to complete his Gesher summer.
The last Shabbat of camp, and the last Shabbat Gesher campers spend in camp, was one of the most inspiring moments of the summer. As our camp community of 500 plus campers and staff sat together in the amphitheater, overlooking the lake and sunset, we heard Josh’s voice as he led the camp in Ma’ariv.
But this was not the last surprise of the summer. On the last night of camp, Josh distributed a Shabbat-o-gram to his fellow campers and staff. With his permission, I am sharing his words with you:
“Gesher Tsevet: I just want to say a generously large thank you for making my last summer in camp meaningful and fun, for helping me through struggles and for being there for me whenever I did something productive and accomplishing. Also, thank you so much in successfully enabling me to stay the full Gesher summer! I will miss you guys so much!
Campers: You guys made an extremely large contribution to who I am today. Furthermore, all of your humor, support, dedication, perseverance, and encouragement have helped mold my identity throughout my camp career. You have opened a special place in my heart that can never be removed or manipulated. I feel so proud and happy, that I have been able to grow up with you guys, and also have been able to create memorable bonds and relationships. Even though our edah will be separated physically after the end of camp, just remember that we are Gesher 2014, and nobody, and I mean nobody, from the outside world can take that away from us.”
How wonderful it is that at his home away from home, Josh learned to self-advocate and we were able to open our eyes, recognize his growth, and hear his words. While we can never guarantee that every camper in our program will realize the same degree of success as Josh, it is still critical that we maintain an ever evolving special needs support program. While the growth and individuation of this particular camper was the result of years of professional support and nurturing, at home and school as well as at camp, with a vision, resources and expert professional staff, we can continue to widen and extend the range of what is possible for all our campers.