My Launch Pad: How the Micro World of Summer Camp Prepared Me for Full Inclusion in Society

"Holy sh**, that’s Matan" – Unknown shmirah (on-duty counselor) late July 1994. These were the words I heard during the execution phase of a critical step in trying to sneak me across camp, from boys’ camp to girls’ camp on the last night of the first session of Eisner Camp in 1994.

In the 80's and 90's, sneaking across camp, or raiding, was a time-honored tradition, especially on the last night.  (I understand that the camp's current management has curtailed the practice.) I like to think that I was fairly innocent in my adolescence, but there is no question that hormones were a motivating factor.

Despite being as motivated as any other 12-year-old boy, there were some significant complexities in the idea that I would participate.  The first was that sneaking across camp involved, well, sneaking, and I was in a large and very loud power wheelchair.  My friends and I never got a chance to solve the next complexity, the fact that the girls bunks were not ramped, but we had great fun dealing with the first.

It became immediately clear to our 12 and 13-year-old minds that there was no way that I was going to elude detection.  Even the most inept shmirah was not going to miss a large wheelchair barreling down the road.  We knew, however, that they could not range far from their posts.  The plan began to form.

One intrepid veteran, with many successful raids, who could thus afford to be denied one opportunity, would be intentionally caught.  While he was distracting the shmirah, I would go down the road at full speed, getting outside of the danger area before attention could be shifted.  The quote above, blurted out as I zipped down the road, was the result.

Of course, we forgot about the walkie-talkies, and of then rabbinical student now Rabbi Matt Gewirtz who was driving the super shmirah van.  Matt caught up to me about a thousand feet later, and ordered me home.

I began, but as soon as the van was out of sight I resumed my trek across camp.  As I crested the hill into girls’ camp, Matt, who was sort of an older brother figure to me that summer, came up behind me again in the van.  This time, he tailed me in the van all the way home.

This was not my only raiding experience, but it was by far the best story, and it exemplifies what camp was for me.  But let’s back up.

I grew up in small-town Connecticut.  Though my parents were strong proponents of full inclusion for their children with disabilities, I faced the twin practical barriers of access and transportation for nearly everything that I did or wanted to do.  My parents did not own a wheelchair van, and none of my friends’ homes were wheelchair accessible, nor were most of the other social venues for adolescents in our small-town.

At school, the educational and emotional blessing of having the incredible Carol Lemire as my one-on-one was paired with the unfortunate chilling effect of the idea that wherever I was, the watchful eye of an adult was never far behind, limiting constructive mischief opportunities.  I wouldn’t trade what Carol has brought to my life for anything, and I have come to think of her as a second mother, but school was not quite the unfettered laboratory of exploration that it might be for other people.

But, every summer, from infancy through age 18, I was at summer camp, most of those years at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Joseph Eisner Camp Institute for Living Judaism, where my parents were on faculty and where the above story takes place.  (Honorable mention to Camp Hemlocks in Connecticut, Camp Oakhurst in New Jersey, and the URJ Kutz Camp/NFTY Leadership Academy in Warwick New York for rounding out the 18 summers.)

My inclusion at camp was a rough and ready thing.  To put things in historical perspective, the ADA was signed by the first President Bush while I was in my second summer as a camper, and would not apply to any kind of Summer camp until three years later.  (Arguably, the First Amendment means that it still doesn’t apply to Jewish camps, but my focus is on where the understandings of the world were, not legal obligations.)  At the time, I was the only wheelchair user at camp.

Because it was rough and ready, with no blueprint, no past experience, and certainly no specialized services available, my inclusion was just that.  Full inclusion.  I was included in functionally all of the substantive activities available to another camper my age.

I swam in the pool every day.  They would slap a new ramp every summer on an appropriate boy’s cabin for my age group, and I would live there.  When it became clear that scrubbing the sinks was the only cabin cleanup task of which I was physically capable, that unenviable job became mine every day.  Each program, each sport, each song session, the presumption was that I would participate, and the creative college students running everything but their imaginations run free as to how that would work.  And it did.  There is almost no camp experience that I haven’t done.  I have danced at dances, acted in the Camp shows, and even once had my nails painted in a battle of the sexes.  (Let me tell you, I don’t look half bad in bright red nail polish, though it’s not my style choice today.)

But that is only a small part of the value.  If you recall my discussions of home, the biggest challenges to my social inclusion where transportation and access.  Camp, however, was its own little world.  Transportation lost its meaning when we all lived in a 600 acre Village.

As for access, when faced with a finite number of buildings that made up the camp social community, Carl, the wonderful camp maintenance man who had a wife in a wheelchair, built ramps to every camp building.

Even better, my ubiquitous escorts were cool twenty-year old guys who had no responsibility to enforce the rules.  (My most well-known assistant, my still dear friend Martin Smith, even helped me go raiding once.)  Here, my opportunities were the same as everyone else’s.

Then there were the differences in the community, and my human interactions.  My fellow campers lived with me, ate with me, swam and showered with me.  Anyone who has ever been the camp knows the depth of connection that that fosters.  In that depth of connection, it’s amazing how the separating otherness of disability falls away.  It wasn’t Utopia, and we had all the problems of a group of 500 kids 8 to 15 under the supervision of 150 kids 18 to 20, but it was pretty damn good.

It is perhaps no surprise then that it is camp where I had my first kiss, and my first heartbreak.  It is camp where I got an entire childhoods worth of bruises and tumbles, and the little triumphs that tend to follow soon after.  It is camp where I saw my first adult magazine, played my first card game, and broke my first curfew.  And, as described above, it was camp where I got the indescribable experience of raiding.

Since I could hang out with the other kids, camp was also the first place I encountered the Beatles, Billy Joel, and Simon and Garfunkel.  It was the first place I was surrounded by Phish Heads and Dead Heads, and the first place that I got to sing with friends as they jammed on ubiquitous acoustic guitars.  Many who know me now understand that each of these are significant parts of my current identity, but, in the pre-Internet world, I would have not found any of them sitting in my home in New Milford Connecticut.

The difference and social experience was also profound.  I think that I was well liked in my home town growing up, but I was always a little separate, no one knew me that well.  At camp, I was popular.  I had friends, acquaintances, and that loose construct we call “a crowd.”  At camp, I learned the social skills which would serve me well when I got to college and the real world and, for the first time, had year-round experiences with easy access to my peers.  This is, perhaps, a sensation experienced by many summer campers, but that doesn’t change its value to me.

Camp was also my first experience at independent living.  My assistants, especially Martin, were very clear that they were there to help me with my disability needs, but not to direct my life or my choices.  I had counselors for that, like everybody else, and the requisite independence that all campers experience.  So, simultaneously, I got to learn to make my own choices and the important lesson of how to comfortably accept the care of professionals not in your family.  Both of these are critical skills for someone with my needs to learn in order to live independently, and it was in the relatively safe, supportive environment of camp where I got to test these ideas for the first time.

This, then, was camp for me.  Like many Jewish children, I found it a nourishing experience, fostering a lifelong connection to Judaism and the Jewish people.  Beyond that, though, it was the place where I got to develop into a full-fledged human being.  Looking back on my life, I can’t think of a single social developmental milestone which happened for me somewhere other than camp.

This is not to say that camp is a panacea for socially isolated people with disabilities.  It is critical to my success that I grew up there.  My experience would no doubt have been different had I first arrived at camp a teenager that had never been included in a broader social world.  In fact, as a professional, I have encountered less than successful situations where just that was tried.  Further, though somewhat socially isolated, I was always included with my nondisabled peer group for education, and I have no doubt that that gave me tools which helped me to succeed at camp.

That said, for those with the basic tools, I think that camp can be in incredible opportunity to broaden one social development.

A key caution for anyone thinking to pursue this option.  Camp was only successful for me because I was allowed to have the same experiences as any other camper.  This meant that I was not bubble wrapped, but was able to get a few bumps and bruises.  Most importantly, it meant that I was not chaperoned, any more than any other camper.

As I mentioned, my assistants were cool 20- somethings with a clear idea of their role.  Further, when my parents, as camp faculty, were informed of my mischievous deeds, they made it very clear to those conveying the message that they were just happy that I was having the same experience as any other camper, and that if whatever I was doing would not normally necessitate a call home, then they didn’t need to know.  If you make camp as isolated and protective as the larger world, you will have no better results than the larger world.

But, done right, camp can be a launch pad, and for me was perhaps the key launch pad to help me find my current integrated place in the world.