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Having fun yet? The challenge of summer vacation, working families, and children with disabilities

The ideal summer camp: arts & crafts, trees to climb, pool, gym, fire-pit, handicapped-access, and government funding

What do your kids do during the summer? If you’re like most Israeli parents, you scramble to enroll them in day camps during July. By August, you manage the month by shlepping the kids to work or leaving them with local pre-teens who run “babysitter day camps” for the younger set, before finishing the summer off with a week or two completely off work for a family vacation.

By the time it’s all over, you’re broke and exhausted. After 6th grade or so, you stop spending money on day camp, making your peace with leaving them home alone to sleep late, sit in front of the TV, the computer and their phones, or spend your money at the mall and the pool.

What if your child or teen has a disability? It’s a catastrophe. Truly. Revital Lan Cohen, Kfar Saba City Council Member, lawyer and disability rights advocate, and mom to a 14-year-old son with ASD, recently wrote about the problem of the summer and her 14-year-old son with Autism. When I asked her when she starts worrying about the summer, she laughed and said, “In September!”

Lan Cohen explained, “I think about the year and all 365 days of it all the time, from what’s happening right now, as well as what will happen in the future.”

Pool Fun at Camp Shutaf
Inclusive Pool Fun at Camp Shutaf in Jerusalem

If you’re child is fully-included, what every parent wishes for, they have 8-10 weeks of summer vacation. If your child attends a special education program, they have either the same two-month vacation as their peers without disabilities, or between 3-6 weeks of vacation. Yes, really.

What should they do for all or even part of the summer, parents wonder. Most day camp programs are staffed by 16-year-olds, who generally lack the experience, training and support for coping with kids with disabilities, even those kids with milder developmental delay, or less complicated emotional/behavioral and social issues.

Many parents tell the story of enrolling their kids, crossing their fingers and hoping for the best, until the day they get the phone call that their child has been kicked out of their camp program.

That’s really great for your kid’s self-esteem and yours.

What are Lan Cohen’s biggest worries this summer? “When my son goes back to school in the fall and realizes that what he thought was socializing — via computer games and WhatsApp — was different than what everyone else was doing, that is, also getting together without him.”

Hanging out with friends at Camp Shutaf in Jerusalem. ©Debbi Cooper
Hanging out with friends at Camp Shutaf in Jerusalem. ©Debbi Cooper

Now entering our tenth year, Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem, has been working on the challenge of summer vacation for kids and young people with disabilities since 2007. This summer, Camp Shutaf will host 135 kids and young people for three full weeks of inclusive, day camping — our biggest camp ever. With virtually no government funding. (If you’d like to help support Camp Shutaf’s growth this summer, click here to help us make our matching grant goals in July).

We had 100 campers enrolled by the end of June, unheard of here in Israel, where everything is done at the last minute. Are parents panicked? They sure are. Shutaf staff field phone calls from all over Israel each summer as camp draws near, asking if we hold camp in cities other than Jerusalem.

We wish. That would take government buy-in into the problem of summer vacation, as well as the need for quality, inclusive informal education for all children. It would take a long term focus on the problem of summer vacation beyond empty promises made by one politician which are voted out by another.

Why doesn’t Shutaf receive more than perfunctory funding from the Jerusalem municipality and the Ministry of Social Welfare. We include, year-round, at all of our programs, combining populations of children and young people, with and without disabilities, making it virtually impossible for us to meet old-fashioned criteria based on siloing individuals according to diagnosis.

Old-fashioned criteria created to separate, rather than bring together and include.

Arts and Crafts at Camp Shutaf in Jerusalem ©Debbie Hill
Arts and Crafts at Camp Shutaf in Jerusalem ©Debbie Hill

Absurd, right? This summer August has five weeks, making summer’s schedule even more challenging. Even if your child benefits from a school program that extends into August, available for some children enrolled in programs that serve those with Autism Spectrum Disorder or those with more significant physical and cognitive disabilities, all bets are off by around August 10th.

And let’s be frank with each other. Summer programming is generally led by National Service teenagers and classroom aides, who greatly differ in terms of their skills, educational backgrounds and knowhow. Teachers and therapists are present, just not all of the time.

At its best, It’s babysitting. At its worst, it’s little more than warehousing for kids who need and benefit from familiar routines and regular activities, 12 months a year.

What’s so wrong with valuing informal education? Kids deserve more. All of them, with and without special needs. They deserve real informal-education programs that make the summer the best time of the year.

What’s that look like? Let’s imagine that ideal summer camp space. A green and pleasant, handicapped-accessible and safely-enclosed campus with enough indoor and outdoor spaces to provide a break from the summer heat. There would be a pool nearby and a fully-equipped gym. An arts and crafts room. A dance room. A field where kids can run around freely as well as play sports that encourage teamwork. Tall trees with climbing equipment for ropes courses. It being Israel, there would be animals to learn about and care for, and a safely-designed fire pit for outdoor cooking and camping skills. A trained counselor and specialist staff, post high-school and beyond, working to support the needs of every camper, with and without special needs, with the regular mentorship of the camp director and social services staff. The day would be fun and active with once a week field trips so that kids can expand their personal vistas and frames of reference.

Sound like heaven? It could be, with investment and commitment-to-access to summer camp programs for every kid. Camp is exactly what Israeli kids need — all of them, with and without disabilities — and no longer get in today’s fast-paced and less-secure world, where parents and grandparents work, and kids can no longer spend the summer running around outside with their friends.

A summer with a break from routine for all. A summer that kids and parents can look forward to with pleasure, and that parents can afford and not dread. A summer that would make for an easier transition back to school in the fall. That’s a problem worth solving.

About the Author
Beth Steinberg is the Executive Director and co-founder of Shutaf, Inclusion Programs for Children with Special Needs in Jerusalem. A believer in Jewish camping, Beth is a graduate of Massad and Ramah camps, where she learned the importance of informal education programs as a platform for teaching Jewish and social values. As a parent of a child with special needs, she struggled to find workable, appropriate activities for her child. Beth believes that a well-run inclusion program can help educate and change values, creating meaningful and lasting social change. Beth is also the Artistic Director of Theater in the Rough, engaging audiences with free summer Shakespeare.
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