Inclusion of kids with disabilities at camp is not a “program” – it is a philosophy and a culture.
Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) fielded research in 2013, conducted by Laszlo Strategies and funded by Allan and Nancy Lipton, which clearly indicated that the field of Jewish camp was ready and willing to create more inclusive environments for campers with all abilities, but needed more formalized staff training at all levels to truly be able to serve children with disabilities. While the Ramah movement, New Jersey Y camps, and Yachad have been addressing this need for many years, the broader field required expertise and training to make the cultural change happen.
FJC’s Ruderman/Alexander Inclusion Initiative, a three-year effort to fund new Inclusion Coordinator positions at six overnight camps, has been a game changer for FJC and for the field. This initiative is the first-step in helping camps ensure that all children – regardless of their abilities – are part of our Jewish community. Due to the investment in these six camps (which included dedicated staff, ongoing training and mentoring, and research and evaluation), enrollment of campers with disabilities has increased already by 122%.
The success of our work with these camps confirmed how integral the role of an Inclusion Coordinator is in changing the culture of a camp. But an entire camp cannot rely on one person alone to ensure that children with disabilities are properly cared for. These camps are now moving toward a “decentralized model” where the Inclusion Coordinators impart knowledge and share greater responsibility for campers with disabilities with other camp staff and specialists. With more staff focused on social inclusion (developing friendships), rather than just physical integration (making environmental and programmatic accommodations), camps are making strides at creating a community that seeks to serve all campers during the summer months.
FJC has also created a Community of Practice for camps to share best practices for serving children with disabilities in meaningful ways. Our ongoing research and evaluation will help reduce the barriers to entry and will help increase participation. Both day and overnight camps which have embraced inclusion have seen increased support from their leadership, community, and funders.
We are grateful to our investors to date – the Ruderman Family Foundation, the Stanford and Joan Alexander Family Fund, the Leo Oppenheimer and Flora Oppenheimer Haas Trust and an anonymous funder – who have helped FJC bring inclusion to the forefront of the Jewish camp field.
We continue to work to expand these efforts to help open more camp gates to inspire lifelong Jewish engagement that are accessible for everyone.