SUMMER FUN, AND SO MUCH MORE

summer camp experience

A letter home from Yael shows what the right summer camp experience can give.
PHOTO/courtesy the Greene family

Before my daughter Yael left for her second summer at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Coleman, we were out running a few errands. There were, after all, a million little things to buy and pack before she and her sisters headed off to camp.

Yael had been thinking about what she wanted to share with her bunkmates in regard to her autism. It’s a conversation she has had before; she takes it upon herself to educate those around her and to help them better understand her autism and how it impacts her. She speaks with eloquence and grace as she allows her peers to experience the world through her eyes.

And just as Yael embraces and accepts herself, she helps others to do the same with her honesty, her insight and her willingness to be so open.

So, as we drove, she asked me if I thought we should practice the conversation she was preparing to have at camp. I thought for a moment, then asked Yael what she felt that she needed.

If she needed to go through that conversation with me, I’d be happy to. If she felt confident in her words, her thoughts and her perspective, then perhaps we didn’t need to review.

She paused for a moment, reflecting, and then decided that she was confident enough to handle the conversation without any further input or coaching from me or her dad. I love that. I admire that. The truth is, she’ll need that life skill as she moves forward; she’ll need to educate others and advocate on her own behalf.

She went on to say that last summer’s conversation was so positive and meant so much to her.

“I told the girls all about my autism, and you know what, Mommy? They really understood and accepted me,” she said. “They treated me like…well, like family! I always felt included, and isn’t that what family is all about, Mom?”

And through a stream of tears, I simply nodded and answered, “Yes, Yael. That is what family is all about.”

When we dropped Yael off yesterday, it was not without fear or hesitation. I own my identity as a bit of a worrywort when it comes to my special needs child, but frankly, I worry for all of my girls. They are my heart and my soul.

It is hard to entrust them to the care of others, particularly when it comes to Yael. We had once again shared our concerns with Bobby Harris, the director of Camp Coleman, and his wife Ellen Zucrow; Ellen plays a key leadership role as an Inclusion Specialist, helping to support those kids who come to Camp Coleman with special needs.

Ellen had spoken to both myself and my husband as we attempted to get all of our ducks in a row for camp. As we arrived at camp and made our way through the various support staff, it was clear that they had created a strong and secure safety net for our girl. Each conversation that we had, from that with Ellen to that with the unit head and on down to the counselors, helped to ease my fears and angst.

Though I would not be there to watch out for Yael, it was clear that there would be an abundant amount of loving eyes on her, ready to support her in any way that she needed. Each conversation reflected the camp’s devotion to creating a safe, nurturing, inclusive and supportive atmosphere for Yael.

Yael has described family as those who love, accept and include you for who you are. She’s right.

Leora, my middle daughter, has often described camp as “a home away from home.”

So, as I sit here and think about all that Camp Coleman’s staff has done for Yael, all that they have done for all three of my girls, I can’t help but think of them as family. They don’t simply have my daughter’s back, but they have mine too.

And, when I reflect upon the communal spirit that they nurture at Camp Coleman, and the values that they embody, I know that while all three of my precious girls are not with me right now, they are home.

Home is a place where you feel safe, loved, cared for and valued. Home is a place where you can be yourself and be celebrated for all that you are. Home is where you find your family, both the one you were born into and the one that you create. I am so very, very grateful that Camp Coleman has given my children a second home and an extended family.

That is a gift and blessing beyond measure.

By Deborah Greene
For The Atlanta Jewish Times