Thank G-d for Camp Shutaf. If you are the parent or teacher or friend or family of a special needs kid, then you know all about "summer camp rejection."
Of course, if your child is a whiz at cooking or computers, there are day camps and sleep-away camps to enhace their skills in these endeavors and keep them off the streets in the summer.
There are sports camps, swim camps, all kinds of camps for regular children who don't suffer from any medical or learning disabilities.
Children with medical and emotional issues also have specific camps that address their needs. There are camps for the blind and visually impaired. There are camps for children undergoing treatment for cancer. There are camps for children with AIDS. There are camps for children who have lost loved ones to terror. There are summer camps for children who are autistic.
This is all good.
However, as the mother of a child who has mild cerebral palsy, vision impairment and epilepsy, my camper was routinely excluded from most camps.
We sent him one summer to a well renowned day camp in our home town and pulled him out when he was bullied by a group of children who threw rocks at him and taped a sign that said "Kick me" on his back.
Most of the other camps we contacted didn't want him. Hmmm, he wears a brace? He has poor vision? Cerebral palsy? Learning issues? He needs medication? SEIZURES??! "I'm sorry, we don't think our camp would be a good fit for your child."
I happen to hate that phrase. It is the polite, politically correct way of saying, Hey, we're not taking a kid with all the problems your kid has---our insurance carrier would kill us!
Even more prestigious, national camps for children with 'life-threatening diseases' who generally are equipped to handle medical issues, blew us off with the explanation that they are geared only for children with a specific disease such as cancer.
We explored other options and found that Gan Israel, run by Chabad, was perfect for him: small, Jewish, and campers his own age. Not only that, but our rabbi, a real sweetheart, was not afraid to accept a Jewish child with seizures and limited vision. As he grew older, though, he outgrew Gan Israel and the camp in our county was too small to continue alone--it merged with the East Bay Gan Israel. As we both worked, schlepping him to the East Bay every day was out of the question.
We sent him to a wonderful camp in Napa County with a one-week session for teens his age run by Lighthouse for the Blind. There, he got to do the whole 'overnight' camp thing amid a staff geared not only to vision issues but to all medical issues. He got to go canoeing, horse-back-riding, hiking, cooking and sitting around a bonfire singing in a setting where the staff was prepared for anything. Unfortunately, the camp session was only one week. The good news was that although the food wasn't kosher, the camp would accomodate anyone's dietary needs---so our huge trunk full of ready-to-eat kosher meals they took in stride.
Then we made aliyah.
I heard a lot about kitana (summer camp)in the summer. The first summer, the Boy went to ulpan and hung out at home. Ulpan was too much like school; home was too much like hanging out too much with the computer and television and never getting out and doing anything. Towards the end of the summer, I was taking him to the pool a lot.
I was facing this summer with some dread: I simply wasn't prepared in my lousy Hebrew to apply to camps and get rejected in a language I haven't yet mastered. Then I found out that because Israel has special education schools, the schools have kitana through July! Wow! Yes, its on the campus, but its more summer camp than schooling: trips, museums, visits by paramedics, soldiers and fire-fighters.
Then I read the Jerusalem Post one day and found out that other parents, smarter and more can-do than myself, faced the same problem with their special needs children -- and they decided to do something about it. They started their own summer camp for kids who have mild physical and learning disabilities.
It's called Camp Shatuf ("Partner") and it meets daily at Ein Yael in southern Jerusalem for three weeks in August. August happens to be the month that the special education schools' kitanot are not in session -- so parents have 4 weeks with their special ed children at home who have nothing to do, and have no appropriate camp options for them.
Camp Shutaf, on the other hand, is geared towards children aged 6 to 14 who have mild to moderate learning issues or disabilities. For those over 14, such as the Boy, there is the option of being a "junior counselor" instead of a camper. Nor does Shutaf limit its openings only to children with special needs--by design, it is inclusive and both campers and junior counselors with no disabilities are welcome.
At first, the Boy was not thrilled with having his four-weeks-in-front-of-some-electronic-gadget curtailed by what I described as his "first job." However, when he explained to his tutor what he was doing, he received such an enthusiastic endorsement from his tutor that the Boy began to think maybe this would be a good thing to do. His tutor told him what a mitzvah it is that the Boy would be doing work to benefit other children and make society better, and so grudging acceptance turned into enthusiasm.
Last week, he went to orientation with another boy who lives in our neighborhood and who does NOT have any disabilities. The two boys happen to share the same name, and his new partner told our kid that he worked as a junior counselor last year also. "It was so cool I decided to do it again this year," he assured our son.
The Boy came out of his orientation all fired up for camp. He got a terrific review from the menahelet and from his madrich, who both told me that our son is "really awesome" and "absolutely amazing" in the best sense of those words.
Sounds like camp is off to a positive start.
Kol haK'vod to Miriam Avraham and Beth Steinberg, the women who went all out for their kids, and for ours!