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Love in a box

The care package full of activities replaced an actual camp experience for those with disabilities. It's true message was: You're not alone

When the staff of Shutaf (Hebrew for partner)—a year-round inclusion program that brings together kids, teens and young adults with and without disabilities—understood early this summer that they couldn’t hold their in-person flagship camp in August, it broke their hearts. Camp glittered as the season when the whole community, comprising 150 participants ages 6 to 30 from across Greater Jerusalem, came together for three full weeks.  It sparkled as a time of wholesomeness and joy. A communal gathering of fun, where inclusion wasn’t a slogan but a reality, a way to be.

Yet with COVID-19 raging, it became clear that in-person togetherness couldn’t be done.

It was also obvious that there was no way that Shutaf cofounders and codirectors Beth Steinberg and Miriam Avraham were going to let the scorcher days of August stretch on without sending their campers and families a hug. Something to say they were thinking of them. And something to actually fill those days, virtually.

So they put their heads together with program director, Marci Tirschwell, and a cadre of Shutaf’s year-round professional staff, many who were either furloughed or quarantined or both (!), to create a care package of fun, engaging educational activities. They reached out to many beloved people who staff camp—Lisa teaching her Zumba lessons, Marvin with his signature hip-hop lessons, Tamir Goodman twirling a basketball, a coach from Hapoel Katamon’s youth soccer league. They filmed morning circle, and even an organizer. Counselors came from near and far to film at the office so that participants could see familiar faces. Over a month, some 12 to 15 people contributed, culminating with 14-hour days, brainstorming sessions full of smiles and creativity.

Filming counselors at Shutaf’s office in Jerusalem. (photo courtesy of Shutaf)

Making the videos was its own form of staff development, explained Tirschwell. Translating and distilling knowledge and understanding accured over Shutaf’s 13 years of running camp. How to be mindful in giving directions when some children can read and others cannot. Tirschwell often stopped to ask, How do we do this the Shutaf way? In other words, How can we make this video as accessible as possible, as inclusive as possible?  That involved choosing the right educational platform that worked well on a cellphone.

Mriam Avraham (left), Shutaf cofounder and codirector, and Marci Tirschwell, Shutaf programming director, prepare the assortment of materials for Camp-in-a-Box (photo courtesy of Shutaf)

The result was a colorful cardboard box teeming with tools for activities: a deflated soccer ball and basketball with pump; a jump rope; a planter, seedlings, beans and soil; an art supplies kit including paint, paintbrushes,  beads, pencils and an eraser; and other assorted supplies to entertain participants, young or older, for hours. Camp-in-a-Box came together with a link to an online platform featuring fifty videos offering 120 hours of activities color-coded according to level of difficulty: beginner, intermediate and advanced. And it was given gratis.

The array is dizzying. Karaoke. Zumba. Voice lessons. Yoga. A video with camp’s opening circle. A primer on how to organize your time. Origami. Animation. Homemade bubbles. Basketball, Street games with chalk, ping pong, memory games. Lanyards. Recipes for vegetable salad, fruit salad, quiche, lasagna. Soccer. Guided imagery. A place to upload videos of yourself doing something. And that’s only a very partial list.

They called it, Camp-in-a-box.

But what was it, really?

Love-in-a-Box. A parcel of caring, a message to all participants—kids and teens and young adults with and without disabilities and their families—that Shutaf hadn’t forgotten about them.

“August is the longest, hardest and loneliest month for children and young adults with disabilities and for their families,” affirmed Beth, whose son, Akiva, 23, has Down Syndrome. “This box, and everything behind it, was our way of telling Shutaf campers and families, you’re on our minds.” Miriam Avraham nodded in agreement. Her daughter, Vinnie, 25, also has Down Syndrome. Added Miriam, “It was our way of saying we really care.”

And that’s exactly how it was received.

When Tirschwell, program coordinator Leah Allswang and Mikki Lauderdale, a Sherut Leumi volunteer, brought the weighty cardboard box to the Shohat family doorstep in Efrat on a sunny sweaty August afternoon, Ely, 8, leapt out the front door to greet them. The box itself, and its personal delivery, felt like a massive hug.

“All of a sudden, our house radiated with that carefree, ecstatic joy that comes with summer’s here,” smiled Shohat. Ely, face alight, jumped around the house, squealing Shu-taf, Shu-taf.

Opening the box and watching the videos unleashed associations of sweet summertime, all the memory pieces of camp. That was powerful because acute was the disappointment when camp was cancelled.

Ely has multiple delays in several areas, which can make it complicated for him to maintain relationships, explained Shohat. “Because he looks like a regular kid, you wouldn’t know that he has some disabilities.” Whereas a previous day camp lacked the tools to support Ely and punished him with time-outs when he got overwhelmed, Shutaf provided a framework that offered unconditional love, patience and quiet understanding of his needs.  Shutaf counselors knew to gently embrace him and ask, Ely, is the noise too much for you?

“If you use the right word, he changes on a dime.” At Shutaf, the staff knew those words intuitively.

Equally delighted with Camp-in-a-Box was Neta, 11, Ely’s older sister who doesn’t have disabilities and went to camp last year. She was no less crushed by this year’s cancellation.

“What I love about Camp Shutaf is that you just can’t get into fights. It’s not about you. It’s about the common element. And what’s surprising is how everyone is truly included.”

“You might imagine that a group of kids with special needs means that some kids are sitting on the sidelines. But mostly, everyone did everything. It’s special because nobody is different. They accept people as they are.”

Neta leaned in to share.

“Last summer, I was playing with my friends, and Ely was playing with his. I invited him over to play with me. He said, I’m busy with my friends.” Her face broke into a smile.

Neta, 11, and Ely, 8, hugging at Camp Shutaf in August 2019 (Photo courtesy of Debbie Shohat)

Debbie Shohat acknowledged that this happy, comfortable scene can be somewhat less common at Ely’s school during recess, where the mass of kids without proper support can leave him confused and sometimes lonely.

“There are very few services that meet the needs of children with disabilities in this intense and encompassing way. It’s not only about entertaining the kids – it’s filling that time with content and experience that brings forth growth, love and relationships for all involved,” explained Shohat. There are special frameworks that do great things, but they just don’t do inclusion.

For many, inclusion is much easier said than done. But not at Shutaf.

“We don’t talk about inclusion,” quipped Tirschwell matter-of-factly. “We just include.”

That’s so true, echoed Gaby Shine Markowitz, a mother of four kids who have all gone to Shutaf camp.  Three do not have disabilities; the youngest, Hallel, 10, has Down Syndrome.

“At other camps, the focus is on the activity you’re doing, be it basketball or drama,” explained Shine Markowitz. “At Shutaf counselors take the time to get to know you as a person, see who you are. That’s profoundly different from all other camps. My children felt a sense of belonging at Shutaf, appreciated and seen. Everyone gets the extra attention that every child needs.”

“Children with disabilities don’t feel different from children that don’t have disabilities. That’s a huge model for a family like mine. Where else can we get that?”

Hallel Markowitz, 10, joyously receives Camp-in-a-Box. (Photo courtesy of Gaby Shine Markowitz).

Debbie Shohat agreed. “In some ways, Neta got more out of it than Ely. Where do we teach mainstream kids to embrace others?”

Shutaf also offers global inclusion. The kid with the nose ring, the kid without the nose ring. The religiously observant one, the secular one, Ashkenazi, Sephardi. “It’s a melting pot of wonderful people,” explained Shohat.

There was also genius and kindness in having the counselors deliver the boxes. They spent five long days driving from Gush Etzion to Maala Adumim to Beit Shemesh and throughout Jerusalem.

For Shutaf’s young leadership, the loss of camp was no less painful. “I was missing my friends like you can’t imagine,” said Assaf Gitai, 20, who has been going to Shutaf for seven years and is participating in Shutaf’s Junior Counselor program. “Then this box appeared magically on my doorstep.”

Assaf dug right in to the art activities. He did the origami, plasteline, painting.

Assaf Gitai, 20, a junior counselor at Camp Shutaf, savoring the art activities from Camp-in-a-Box photo credit: Aliza Gitai

Aliza Gitai, Assaf’s mom, marveled at the independence fostered by Camp-in-a-Box. “I expected Assaf to ask for help, but he was able to do it all alone. That was great for his self-esteem.”

At Shutaf’s year-round program, young adults like Assaf learn so many life skills. How to shop at the grocery store. How to dine at restaurants. Sex education. Conversations about drugs and alcohol. But it’s only during camp that they get to join the whole Shutaf community.

“You cannot imagine how essential Shutaf is to our family,” said Aliza Gitai.

Even more meaningful than the actual activity box was the structure and overriding message: you’re not alone. “In sending us this box, Shutaf told us this: even if we aren’t physically together, you’re with us—and we’re with you,” affirmed Gitai, emotion welling in her voice.

It’s a message that during this pandemic could suit everyone.

Neta agreed. “All kinds of people said, have a great summer. Shutaf is the only one who actually made sure that we did.”

About the Author
Ruth Ebenstein is an award-winning American-Israeli writer, historian, public speaker, and health/peace activist who loves to laugh a lot--and heartily. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered An Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide. She is also the author of "All of this country is called Jerusalem": a curricular guide about the contemporary rescue operations of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and has written two teleplays for children, Follow that Goblin and Follow that Bunny. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tablet, WomansDay.com, Good Housekeeping, Triquarterly, CNN.com, USA Today, the Forward, Stars and Stripes, Education Week, Brain, Child, Fathom, and other publications. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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