Four years after its founding, Camp Living Wonders is approaching a pair of homecomings.
First, Director Noah Pawliger said, the camp is looking at some office space in Sandy Springs — nothing big or fancy, just a place for him, an administrative assistant, the new program director and a second program director he hopes to hire before camp this summer so they don’t have to work remotely.
Second and more important, the camp for Jewish kids with developmental disabilities is closing in on a permanent home, either in north Georgia or western North Carolina. Finding and developing that space will mark a major step in unlocking the potential of Living Wonders.
For example, Pawliger said, last year the camp’s intake committee couldn’t get through the intensive interview process with all of its applicants because the work couldn’t start until he secured a location in January. Having a permanent home will allow Living Wonders to open registration for the next year on the last day of camp.
“This population deserves better,” Pawliger said. “They deserve the opportunity to know that they’re all ready for next year.”
After this year’s version of what he called the “arduous, painful process” of leasing a campground, Living Wonders intends to have 60 to 65 campers in Clarksville. But as an example of the problems of being a camp without a home, Living Wonders has to bring in bathroom pods — each with three toilets, three sinks and three showers — to place next to the cabins.
“We want to be able to give them the best opportunities to feel as great and special as they are and, as our campers say, as normal as they are,” Pawliger said.
The lack of a permanent facility also has prevented the camp from bringing in people with physical disabilities and mobility issues, even though Pawliger said the staff is ready to grow to meet that need.
Depending on when Living Wonders finds its forever home and how much work the site requires to get the basics in place, the camp will stop being a collection of wandering Jews by 2018 and as early as 2017.
Pawliger said he expects to grow to 180 to 200 campers per session from across the nation at the permanent location, but he won’t rush things. “When you’re dealing with this population, it has to be a delicate growth and scientific growth. … It’s very important that we’re honest with ourselves every step of the way.”
While the camp will always be Living Wonders’ primary focus, the master plan includes a year-round retreat center using a kibbutz model — a place where adults with special needs can live and transition to full independence through an immersive work and life experience. Those adults will run the center with the necessary support staff.
The only place in the world with kosher, fully accessible retreat centers is Israel, Pawliger said.
Meanwhile, this summer will mark the second year of Migdal Or, a fully inclusive staff training program for special needs and neurotypical people. About half of last year’s trainees are graduating to the status of full staff members this summer, Pawliger said.
One of the exciting things about the program, he said, is the caliber of the program applicants who do not have special needs. “I think they recognize that if they do this program and train with us, they’re going to be able to write their ticket to work at any camp or anything like this in the camping world, but it’s also a life-changing experience.”
To Learn More
Camp Living Wonders is holding two upcoming information sessions in the Atlanta area, which, despite being the camp’s home base, doesn’t send as many campers as Director Noah Pawliger would like.
The first session is at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 28, at the Sandy Springs home of Rob and Michelle Leven. The second will be in March at the Toco Hills home of Rabbi Ilan and Miriam Feldman. Contact Pawliger at email@example.com or 678-888-2259 for details.