This article originally appeared in Including Campers with Disabilities: Learning from the Work of Inclusion Coordinators at Jewish Summer Camps, a compendium of essays exploring successes and challenges of inclusion at camp. Thank you to JTS/William Davidson Graduate School in Jewish Education and Foundation for Jewish Camp for coordinating and producing this project.
Jennifer Phillips, Keshet’s Director of Recreation and Camp Chi’s Inclusion Coordinator, is one of 14 inclusion coordinators to have an article included in the collection.
I am lucky enough to have the best job in the world. I get to enjoy watching campers experience the magic of overnight camp! For the past 12 summers I have worked as the Inclusion Coordinator at Camp Chi and have recently become part of the year-round staff. I have implemented our new Camper Care Team at Camp Chi, while continuing to run our Keshet Inclusion Program. Camp Chi is and continues to be a true example of what an inclusive camp community should be.
It is hard to believe that this past summer was my 25th year providing inclusive camping for children with disabilities. What started as a job as a counselor for a camper with autism grew into a lifelong passion. Camp was one of the single most important parts of my childhood and helped me to understand the importance of every child being able to go to camp. Making friends, learning to live with others, gaining confidence and independence, and being part of a community is what camp is about for ALL children.
Camp should be a place that every child who wants to participate can do so. Siblings, cousins, classmates, and neighbors should all have the opportunity to attend camp together. No matter what your disability, there is a place for you at camp. I have the mindset of saying yes and working on a plan to get there. I look at the campers and develop a strategy to make camp successful for them. This may mean we would look at the appropriate length of stay at camp or how to structure their day at camp.
At Keshet, we have a team that works together to implement modifications, adaptations, and individual camper plans. If you have a positive attitude that a camper will be successful, you will find a way to make it work. Motivating your staff to stay positive is the best way to create a culture that is willing to say “Yes” and make camp a place for everyone.
Sometimes it's hard to imagine how things will work and other times you have a feeling of exactly what you need to do to make it work. Each summer I feel as though I want to make camp the best it can be. That means I always need to be looking at how to change things around and make camp better. This summer I focused on how to make our Inclusion Counselors more a part of the camp staff, the village team, and help them better get to know the campers in their cabins.
For the past years, we staffed camp with a few extra counselors to cover breaks, days off, and times we needed to fill in for assigned staff. The model worked in many ways and the staff had support that they needed most of the time. However, there were plenty of times that the few floaters we had were hard at work. This meant the other counselors could not always have help when they needed it. If a floater was covering a day off they could not cover the times that other staff needed assistance.
Also, many of the floaters did not know the campers they were working with and did not know the staff in their villages. Counselors did not want to leave their campers with substitute staff who did not know their campers. They wanted to make sure that they were being included, happy, and did not want them to feel anxious when they were gone. It was clear to me that I needed to look at what we could do to better support our staff, provide success for campers and make camp more inclusive.
I started thinking how I could help my staff get the down time and days off they needed, and, at the same time, give the campers the support they need. I considered what my vision was for my campers. I wanted them to be in a fully inclusive camp setting, and at the same time give them the support that they need. For some campers this means a staff member with them always and for others it means a staff to support them at times that are challenging for them.
Camp Chi is a large camp and has many villages that act as individual communities. I needed to make sure that each village had enough support. Each village needed a team with the knowledge to support the staff and campers within that village. They would be part of the Camp Chi village staff and model what inclusion should look like.
This all meant that I had to commit to changing the structure of my summer staff chart. This would not be as easy as just making this decision. I needed to look at staff numbers from the past summer and look at how many more I would need to hire. I had to see what registration was looking like, how many campers we were expecting, what ages, and what level of support they needed. The two main obstacles were the increased cost in salaries for the added staff and whether we would have enough room to house them. These obstacles were in addition to my general concern about finding enough skilled staff. However, I knew in my heart this was the best thing to do. This would allow for our vision of a seamless inclusive camp community with adequate support for our staff and campers.
I developed a plan to budget for the extra staff. I had to cut costs in a few places and I also found a few small grants to cover some of the additional costs. My team and I carefully sat down and looked at how many staff we would need for each village. Then we looked at how we would house these staff. We came up with a few great ways to add more staff to each of the cabins and have a few live-in villages close by. They would however spend their entire time with their village from wake up until they went to sleep. The plan was set, and we decided it was a “YES!”
You could see the positive effect from the very first day. Each village was staffed sufficiently to help and support all the children as they moved into their cabins. They worked as a cohesive team to help campers unpack, encourage some homesick campers, and helped support all the campers whatever their individual need may be. There was no confusion about their job role. They were there as staff for all campers. At times it was difficult to tell who the cabin counselors were, who the one-on-one counselors were, and who the floaters were. The availability of additional support staff made camp the beautiful picture of inclusion that it is.
This structure also allowed our one-on-one counselors to attend village meetings each day. They could be part of what was happening in the village such as obtaining information about evening programs, discussing issues that may be arising in the cabins, and receiving all the information the other staff was getting. Staff were also able to problem-solve with the Camp Chi staff about campers that were having difficulty. Their experience of having extra training with campers with disabilities gave them some tools and strategies they could share.
The additional floater staff also allowed our counselors the time they needed to have a break and relax and refresh. Being a one-on-one counselor at overnight camp can be physically and mentally exhausting and knowing that you can have a break and that someone who knows your camper’s needs will be there is critical to keeping staff positive and motivated.
The floaters were able to get to know the campers in the village. So, when they had to fill in for breaks or days off, it made it much more efficient. They knew the campers and their needs, and the campers knew the staff. This allowed our campers to continue to participate in camp activities with a staff member that knew what support they needed.
These changes also led to another important result. We saw an increase in our campers meeting their goals, such as gaining independence, social skills, and confidence. As a team we felt that this new model made a huge impact in this area. Also, having a staff available made it possible for all campers to get the support they needed so they could be with their camp groups, even if their counselor was on a break or a day off. This had such a positive impact on our camp community and helped make our goal of full inclusion a reality.
Overall, I feel so much pride that I was able to watch this vision become a reality. It was a highlight of my summer to see it play out. I have a smile on my face when my campers are just “campers” and not viewed as campers with Keshet support. Many years of work went into making this happen and I am proud of it. Having a camp team that believes in inclusion and working together to make sure it happens is the key.
Achieving successful inclusion programming comes from the top, with setting examples and letting your staff know what your vision is. I have learned that you should trust your instincts and always believe that your vision is possible! I feel so proud of what I accomplished, and that I have been able to watch the magic of inclusion happen before my eyes. What is even better is that I get to watch the same beautiful thing happen again [this summer]. I feel like the luckiest camp director!