In the tri-state area, many 18-, 19- and 20-somethings work at Camp HASC for the summer. This one-of-a-kind sleepaway camp has given children and adults with special needs more than 50 unforgettable summers. HASC’s camp grounds feature the warmest pool on earth, basketball courts, jungle gyms, swing sets and a fully stocked beit midrash. Additionally, Camp HASC provides specialized playrooms for children with sensitivity to loud noises or big crowds. Every morning, campers and staff eat the best kosher breakfast around.
Each year, Camp HASC receives an influx of new staff. Seven years ago, Max G and I performed this communal rite of passage. This decision would change my perspective on life forever.
Let’s hop back to 2016: I attended Yeshivat Lev Hatorah in Ramat Beit Shemesh. One day at lunch, Rabbi Avi Pollak visited and pitched Camp HASC to the students. After the presentation, Rabbi Pollak offered to meet one-on-one with students to discuss HASC. During our meeting, I asked Rabbi Pollak a question. “Rabbi, I’ve never worked with people who have disabilities before. I think HASC might be too much for me.” Rabbi Pollak paused for a few moments, and then replied in a slow, melodic tone: “Yosef. Many of the camp’s staff have never done this line of work before. New staff get trained at orientation and end up having terrific summers.”
After Rabbi Pollak left, I started to ponder working at Camp HASC. Growing up, I never volunteered for the Friendship Circle, Yachad, or any other organization for people with different abilities. My high school, TABC, had a SINAI program attached to it. But I never interacted with students with special needs beyond a short conversation or a quick hello. For these reasons, I felt reluctant to sign up for the summer.
Later in the year, my buddies Jacob Bach and Max G signed up for Camp HASC. Watching my pals take the leap inspired me to jump in, too.
After four days of orientation and training, Camp HASC begins. On the first day of camp, parents and bright yellow buses arrive to drop off the campers. At HASC, male and female campers get broken up into three divisions. One division has campers under the age of 13. Another division consists of campers over the age of 21. And the final division is called Rayim, primarily consisting of individuals with behavioral challenges of all ages. Each division has campers with a wide range of physical and emotional abilities. Some campers can speak, others cannot. Some campers need help dressing and bathing themselves, and others need the calming, mature presence of an adult.
Each bunk at Camp HASC has a “vet.” The term vet refers to someone who worked at Camp HASC the year before. Every year, tons of counselors return to work at HASC for a second summer. The vets of each bunk perform regular counselor duties and simultaneously guide their new co-counselors. In 2016, my bunk consisted of four campers and five counselors. Each camper’s needs and abilities varied.
Two campers could speak, two could not. Some campers woke up before 6 a.m., some campers liked to sleep in. Two campers could sit through davening, two could not. Some days I’d be so busy that I’d have to wrap my tefillin at 8 p.m. All four of my campers required assistance for dressing and showering.
In the Book of Shemot, Rashi famously wrote: “Kol Techilot Kashot”—all beginnings are hard. At Camp HASC, weeks 1 and 2 are the summer’s most challenging times. Until HASC, I never helped shower another human being with shampoo and a loofah. Until HASC, I had never helped someone go to the restroom. Performing both of these tasks for my campers throughout the first two weeks was very uncomfortable. Until HASC, I had never been asked to watch a single camper for three hours straight.
Until HASC, I had never needed to cut food for someone and feed them. By the way, most counselors at Camp HASC sacrifice the first 80% of their meals to help their campers. Often, my campers would need me to cut avocados and chicken into small pieces. Additionally, counselors must ensure that certain campers do not overeat or undereat at meals.
At first, all of these new responsibilities were a huge challenge for me. Due to the stress, I slacked off. On walks with my campers, I made phone calls. At meals or during bunk activities, I schmoozed and socialized with friends in other bunks.
On the third day of camp, my co-counselors pulled me aside to have a chat. “Hey, Yosef. We know it’s your first few days, but, we don’t think you’re giving this your all. Campers spend most of the year inside their house and school. In fairly secluded areas. Camp is the one time of year they can be free and explore. You can give our campers the best seven weeks of their year here.” After hearing this mussar—rebuke—18-year-old Yosef got annoyed. Thoughts like “It’s basically my first day. I’m sure you acted the same way last year” ran through my head.
Unbeknownst to me then, my co-counselors’ piece of advice would end up changing my summer experience. Around week 3, most counselors at HASC undergo a priority shift. After spending two weeks dressing, feeding and facilitating fun activities for campers, counselors learn to place their camper’s needs above their own.
The goal of Camp HASC is to show your campers an unforgettable summer experience. By the third week, I was committed to accomplishing this goal. For instance, one camper of mine named Jeff liked basketball. Thus, whenever free time arrived, I attempted to get Jeff onto the basketball court for tons of basketball. Another one of my campers named Carl liked climbing in playgrounds and going down slides. Thus, before meals, I would bring Carl to the playground and travel up and down slides with him. Another camper of mine named Joel liked to go back and forth on the swings … for hours on end.
Thus, whenever there was time, I would take Joel to all the various swing sets in camp. At HASC, counselors learn how to enable another person’s good time. At HASC, staff find the task of showing campers a good time more enjoyable than seeking out a good time for themselves.
To ensure campers have a great summer, many HASC counselors learn to go outside their comfort zone. For example, I would swing my tongue back and forth to make one of my non-verbal campers smile. To excite one of my high-energy campers, I let him chase me in the pool and around various fields. In order to encourage my campers to go down slides and swing on swings, I traveled down the same slides and swung on adjacent swings. Indirectly, this job motivated me and other staff to use our animated, creative and goofy muscles more than ever.
In my opinion, the most inspiring day of camp is visiting day, when staff meet the dedicated parents and siblings of campers. Staff at HASC provide support and fun to campers for seven weeks. Parents and families of campers commit to this duty all year around. These families dedicate their limited free time to ensure their child or sibling arrives on time for speech and occupational therapy appointments. These parents spend early morning and late nights administering their child’s delicate medications. Each task requires immense patience and time. Observing the tireless efforts by families of children or adults with intellectual physical disabilities inspires more than Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter combined. Look around your shul and school and admire the parents and siblings of children with disabilities from your community.
After camp finishes, HASC staff incorporate lessons gleaned from the summer into their daily routine. Upon returning home, HASC staff possess a stronger tolerance for all sorts of peers and family members. Upon returning home, HASC staff have the skills to befriend anybody at their shul or college campus. For the rest of life, HASC staff use their epic summer experience to build friendships, dorm rooms and homes filled with love and care.
Current and former staff at Camp HASC: Keep in touch with your campers. The magical connection you made with your camper or campers does not have to end after camp concludes. Visit your camper during a national holiday. Accompany your camper on shabbatons. Take your camper on HASC’s Simchaton. Spend a Shabbat at your camper’s home. You may not be able to make any long-term commitment, but that’s OK. One moment with your camper still means something. One visit to your camper’s home will make your camper and their family’s day. Getting your camper to smile for one day changes the whole world. Once someone is your camper, they are your camper for life.
To quote Rabbi Moshe Weinberger: “The purpose of life is not to serve yourself, it’s to serve others.”
Visit the www.camphasc.org website and watch the camp’s meaningful videos.
By Yosef Silfen, Edited by Max G.