By Caitlin Smith, long-time GFC staff member and current member of the Camper Care team working with campers with Special Needs. With Caitlin’s help, GFC has become a place where every person can grow and experience all that camp has to offer.
Describing me to others is easy. I’m a teacher, especially of children with special needs, a singer, and a true believer of how camping and the Jewish community can change a person’s life. From the time I was ten years old I knew working with my special friends would become my journey. I was teamed with a fellow student, Nick. He suffered from a traumatic brain injury as a result of an automobile accident. Nick opened my eyes to a whole new world. I was assigned to sit next to him in class and helped him, along with his aide, in PE. We became such a team that eventually I was able to walk with him, unaccompanied, around the school. Nick learned that I loved to sing so I sang as we walked. I learned that I could use my passion for music to reach others. Thus, two of my favorite things came together and I knew from that point on what I would do professionally.
A few years later I was fortunate that my friends, my parents, and my Temple encouraged me to attend Greene Family Camp. I fell in love with the world of being Jewish all day long. I learned to play the guitar, I danced, I prayed, I made life-long friends. I found my second home. I have never left GFC, other than one summer when I went to Kutz Camp. As an adult I have been a songleader, t’fillah coordinator, and finally now serve the role of Special Needs Director, which allows me to combine my true passions in life: Judaism, camping and people with Special Needs. Greene Family Camp’s Special Needs program is a full inclusion model. Here, the campers live in the bunks and participate with everyone. Many of our campers embrace their challenges to find what camp is for them. I revel in being involved in our campers quest to embrace what camp has to offer and watch from the sidelines as they and their peers grow from their experiences. We have had many “special friends” at GFC, who continue to return year after year. Each has their own special story of what going to camp means to them. Throughout the years few have left an extra special impression on staff, other campers and especially me. Noah and Molly are two of them.
Noah was the first camper I supported at GFC. He is a high functioning camper with Autism. Noah included himself seamlessly into his cabin, with the help of his amazing counselors. Throughout the weeks, I would check-in, remind him of schedule changes (especially the event that gets canceled every year–Maccabiah), and see if there was anything I could do to make his summer even better. Towards the end of the session, Noah had to go to the hospital due to a severe asthma attack. His mother rushed down and was ready to take him home. Noah’s response was, “but it is trip night and I’m having so much fun!”. How could you take him home after that? Noah went on trip night (with his mom there) and has since returned to camp for more exciting summers. According to his parents, he calls camp his first home.
Molly, is another GFC camper who has overcome a multitude of challenges. Her spirit and energy resonates throughout the camp when she is there. Molly has cerebral palsy and uses crutches to help her walk. With the ever expanding layout of Greene, Molly pushed herself to resist offers of golf cart rides. Even though she was tired, she continued daily to practice walking without her crutches. She was encouraged by campers and staff and each day she participated completely even with her challenges. I got what I call my “proud momma moment” at the ropes course as Molly climbed to the top of the rockwall. Molly described her experience best in her GFC blog, “Embracing Challenges: When the Entire Camp is My “Challenge Course”
I find my work during the school year as a teacher in a Life Skills classroom with students who are labeled as Moderate to Severe and Profound challenging and rewarding. I support these children and their families to develop and achieve with goals that I know they can attain. The one thing I can’t do for my students is to bring them the camping experience and the Jewish community that supports their needs socially and spiritually. I am only one person, but my hope is to reach many by continuing to challenge all Jewish children to find their place in our special Kehillah Kedosha, our holy community.