Originally posted on The Canteen
By Melissa Frey and Samantha Dresser
The gates of camp will open in just over 100 days, and our participants from around the country are already counting down to sunny days at their summer home. At Kutz Camp, one aspect of camp we are particularly proud of is our Mitzvah Corps program. With the recent focus on disabilities and inclusion, it makes going into our 23rd summer of special needs camping that much more special. The Mitzvah Corps program at Kutz has grown and evolved into a truly integrated, mainstreamed summer camp program for Jewish teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). There are two aspects of this program that are really remarkable.
The Mitzvah Corps program itself has been designed to meet the unique needs and characteristics of each participant in the program, creating individualized accommodations and modifications which allow each camper to succeed. These teens enjoy every aspect of camp life, and are able to build independence and resilience by having real choices in their daily activities. They are welcomed into the community with open arms, into an environment which fosters reciprocal learning, empathy, and understanding. In this open, friendly and supportive camp community, our teens with ASD are able to create friendships, explore their identity, gain independence, and grow in many ways. Perhaps the greatest outgrowth of this program is meeting with the parents of these teens, who are often overcome with gratitude and emotion for making a normative summer camp experience available to their child.
One of our campers, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, loves learning about Judaism and is particularly interested in prayer. She finds it difficult to fit in with her peers at school and in her home congregation. At camp, she participated in the Torah Corps Major, where teens gather for three hours each morning to study Jewish text, Jewish history, and engage in meaningful discussion and debate about a variety of topics relating to Judaism. Throughout the day she chose classes to attend on the subjects of Israeli culture and Jewish ethics, and participated in a variety of other activities and experiences. On the last night of camp, during a closing circle with the all of camp, she, who is generally very quiet and prefers not to be around large groups of people, stood up and addressed the group. She thanked everyone for helping create a place where she felt that she could “unwind.”
A few days after returning home from camp, her mother shared, “My daughter came home with enormously enthusiastic reports about her time at camp. She said she loved the Torah study and Israeli culture sessions and the singing and services. I really couldn’t be happier. Her older sister commented tonight that she was so much more outgoing and engaged this evening than she was before she left. We all think this is because she got accustomed to the much higher level of social demand at camp and it really strengthened her ability and desire to engage. I can’t tell you what a giant step forward this experience is for her. We are excited about how it has enriched her life and the possibilities it opens up for her future.”
In addition to the incredibly talented and dedicated staff who help make this program a reality, what gives the program its sparkle are the Chaverim. At Kutz each teen chooses a Major, a leadership learning area that is their primary focus during the session. The Mitzvah Corps Major is comprised of neurotypical teens that learn the skills of special needs inclusion, and are able to work as peer-engagers, helping with the integration of our special needs population into mainstream camp culture.
Not only are we able to provide a safe, nurturing, camp experience for our teens with ASD, we are also able to train the next generation of compassionate young people who will choose to continue this valuable work of accessibility for special needs populations as they move through college and into the work world. Fostering the next generation of advocates who will stand on the shoulders of all of those doing remarkable work around disabilities and inclusion today is one example of our commitment to a vibrant and just Jewish future. We are so proud of our hundreds of alumni of this remarkable program.
Find out more about URJ programs designed for special needs populations here.