Tikvah Program integrates children with autism with general population

By Logan C. Ritchie

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia,

Through the Tikvah Program, children with autism spectrum disorder will share such Camp Ramah Darom facilities as the dining hall and the lake with other Jewish campers.

Camp Ramah Darom is opening its inclusive arms even wider this summer with the Tikvah Program, a camp within a camp for youths ages 12 to 17 on the autism spectrum.

While Tikvah is not the first program to provide a Jewish summer camping experience for people with special needs — Camp Living Wonders, for example, offers two weeks at Camp Arrowhead in Zirconia, N.C. — it is the first in the Southeast to provide within a general Jewish camp a traditional, immersive, full-summer Jewish camping experience specifically for those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Geoff Menkowitz, the director of the Conservative-aligned camp in Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, said that although Tikvah is new for Ramah Darom, it is a program that “will help open doors wider than before. We have worked hard to accommodate children with special needs and those who fall on the spectrum. To date, more high-functioning campers attend with a personal counselor or other coping strategies. [Tikvah] will allow severe autism and other sensory challenges as part of our camp community.”

Drawing campers from the Southeast Ramah district, which stretches from South Florida to North Carolina to Tennessee to Texas, Tikvah is run by Audra Kaplan. A clinical psychologist in the Chicago area, Kaplan has led a summer camp for children with autism spectrum disorder and similar disabilities since 2010. She also is an alumna of Camp Ramah Wisconsin.

“I’m proud of Ramah for taking this on. My first reaction when Camp Ramah Darom reached out to me was ‘This is amazing.’ The campers will be part of the overall community: eating in the same dining hall and participating in Shabbat services and Havdalah,” she said.

The Lake at Camp Ramah Darom

To foster security and ease, Ramah Darom is making modifications for Tikvah campers. For example, the group enters the dining hall before other campers to feel more grounded in the room. The camp has lots of singing and dancing, and Tikvah campers learn in a smaller setting before going into the big group.

“This is a real inclusion program,” Menkowitz said. “There are other camps for children with special needs, but our vision is to provide one that embraces children with autism spectrum disorder in the broader Jewish community. Practically speaking, a parent may have one child on the spectrum and two neuro-typical kids, and they could all go to the same camp. We want a shared camp community, a shared experience, the same T-shirt for all campers, the same social networks.”

Living in the center of camp is part of that sameness. Tikvah campers will occupy a brand-new cabin with small pods for kids to experience an intimate setting. Tikvah will provide a counselor-to-camper ratio of 1-to-3 and staff each four-week session with college students who have experience at camp and are studying either special needs or occupational therapy.

Camp registration for Tikvah campers is a lengthy process. After the completion of an application, Kaplan interviews the camper via Skype, by phone or in person, depending on the child’s ability. The goal is for the potential camper to get comfortable with Kaplan so she can assess the child’s fit with the program.

“I’m looking for several things,” she said. “No. 1: motivation. Is this person interested in going to camp? It will be a challenge. Can they handle it?”

Kaplan said basic self-care and the ability to communicate needs are important. Campers require coping skills for frustration so Camp Ramah Darom can provide the correct support. She also considers diagnosis, although each community views autism labels in a different way. She talks at length with parents, teachers, caretakers and behavior specialists who are active in the child’s life.

After 25 years of working with special-needs children, Kaplan said: “I can’t wait to see campers making a connection with the Jewish world and community around them.”

For more information about Tikvah and Ramah Darom, visit www.campramahdarom.org.


 

A Family Experience

Camp Ramah Darom hosts Camp Yofi each August. Families with children on the autism spectrum attend together. Campers must be between 6 and 13 years old. For five days, families experience the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains and all camp activities from swimming to art to Jewish programming. For more on Camp Yofi, visit www.campramahdarom.org/programs.