Dreams and Champions: Learning to Accept and Support Ourselves and Each Other

Dream Street is a five day, four night camping program for children with physical disabilities. The camp is held on the grounds of URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS and is sponsored by NFTY’s Southern Region. Dream Street was founded in 1975 with the mission that all children, regardless of their abilities, must be offered the chance to have fun, to make new friends, to achieve, to be accepted for who and what they are, and to learn from the challenges of group life. Each counselor is paired one-on-one with a camper and is responsible for supporting, supervising, and encouraging that camper 24 hours a day for the week. Both the children and the staff at Camp Dream Street benefit from the life-changing experiences the camp has to offer. I wrote this during my volunteering there in 2011.

I just got back from my first dip in a swimming pool in about a dozen years, where I had the privilege of swimming with current Camp Dream Street Mississippi participants – as well as one camper who I first met when I came down to Mississippi eight years ago. I came to Dream Street late compared to most participants, first experiencing it in law school as a guest of my dear friend, a long time Jacobs Camp alum, Jack Rubin. As such I can’t really say that Dream Street facilitated my development the way it has for so many kids.

And yet, in retrospect I am aware that I learned an important lesson while watching the NFTY-Southern participants take on the role of primary care-givers for people whose disabilities exceed mine in complexity. I had already learned many of the important lessons our campers learn about independence, communal dynamics and self worth because I was lucky enough to attend other URJ camps for the first two decades of my life. And here I learned, from my friends who came through the program and the current students whom I watched, that, perhaps, meeting my needs was “no big deal” (a Dream Street catchphrase) and, perhaps, I could turn to my peers as a source of care. Today my needs in my work place are entirely met by my co-workers, and while that has been an evolution that took some time, I don’t doubt that having experienced Dream Street before played a major role in that.

Camp Dream Street offers something special to three different populations. For the young campers, we have the experiences that allow them to grow and develop in a myriad of positive ways. For the older campers and participants in “Great Expectations” (a special program for teen campers), we teach them both skills and a world view, some of which I had to develop on my own as an adult. Lastly, for the NFTY-Southern kids, not only do they get incredible insight into their own abilities to be caring, nurturing & capable, as well as into the lives and realities of people with significant disabilities, they also get a level of connection across generations that I think is unparalleled in other regions. For there are staff members that come back to Dream Street for 10, 15, and in one case 35 years – starting from when they were NFTYites themselves! From my perspective, this shared experience of service bonds these NFTYalumni to each other, and to place, even more strongly, and those bonds are maintained decades after NFTY itself has ended for them. It even allowed someone like me, who grew up in another region (NFTY-Northeast) to be embraced and absorbed in his 20s by this wonderful community.

In sum then, what I can say is that by the simple virtue of its program, and the love & connection it engenders in both its campers and its NFTY-Southern participants across the years, in a single week each year Camp Dream Street Mississippi has the potential to play a pivotal role in the development of both Jewish young people (as well as their families & communities), and people with disabilities, from across the South. And, in my case, also far beyond. . .

In the years since I wrote these words, I have come to believe them even more strongly. Today we have ad campaigns trying to teach people not to be awkward around people with disabilities.  Dream Street, or something like it, takes away all of the awkwardness by replacing discomfort with familiarity. Similarly, not the day goes by when I do not encounter a person with a disability who needs to be meant toward about forcibly asking for what they need. I am no exception. Though I thought I learned the lessons of Dream Street, that my needs were no big deal and that I should be willing to ask for help, in the summer of 2013 I was reminded how far I have yet to go.

I was at a White House event giving awards to Champions of Change, specifically around issues of disability. They were an impressive group.

Each champion that spoke repeated the theme that part of their success had been in being open about and proud of their disability. I, mere weeks before, had suffered through a job interview because I was unwilling to admit that I needed some assistance to find and access a restroom. They had internalized that their differences were no big deal. I was still struggling to ask for basic help. I have learned that we need programs like Dream Street not only to teach Americans without disabilities, or even to open the eyes of those of us that have them, but as a strengthening bulwark against the message of difference and awkwardness that not all of us are quite champion enough to overcome.

I am grateful to Dream Street for what it has done for me. All cannot be done by one Camp in Mississippi, however. I encourage any who comment to think about other such programs that exist, and what other ways we might accomplish the same goal. Thank you

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