BY JOHN MCCURDY / MANAGING EDITOR //
When he was growing up in Atlanta, Noah Pawliger had his own challenges. There was a hearing impairment to overcome as well as some learning differences that meant he was never “academically stellar.”
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“Camp was where I was good at something,” Pawliger, born in Miami but a resident of the metro area for the majority of his life, said with a smile. “I could ‘do’ camp, and I could come home and teach anyone what I learned at camp.”
Still, Noah knew there were others who couldn’t find a place to succeed. Take, for example, one of his best childhood friends. Though Pawliger never realized it until an outside observer informed him, his buddy was autistic.
That didn’t change their friendship, but it did change his friend’s opportunities.
“It wasn’t really clear to me until I later started volunteering and working in day camps for kids with special needs, but those were the times when I saw that there needs to be a different approach,” Pawliger said. “A lot of the time, these kids were just thrown into an inclusion-type setting, and sometimes that was counterproductive.
“The question came back to who was really benefitting from it, and that was a hard thing to swallow.”
Fast-forward to Pawliger’s adult years: After majoring in recreation management and partnering up with (not to mention falling for and marrying) special educator Chanie, he felt prepared to do what he’d always intended by combining his love for camp and passion for different learners.
Then, just a few years ago, his young niece was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. It was the last little push that Noah needed.
“I thought, ‘Alright – this camp thing, this pipedream – we need to do this. [My niece] needs a camp to go to,’” he said. “But it’s not just about her – when I look at her, I see all the kids who are slipping through the cracks in the Jewish camping world, and I think there’s a great opportunity here for them.”
Starting last summer, the “here” referred to is Camp Living Wonders, a full-fledged Jewish overnight camp for those who learn differently. With a fantastic response from families, campers and the Foundation for Jewish Camp, they enjoyed a fabulous first season.
Now, though, it’s time to grow. On the strength of the beautiful Athens YWCO grounds in Clarkesville, Ga.; the enthusiastic professionals and staff; and a board that Pawliger calls “unbelievable” and “incredibly dedicated,” even more kids will get to benefit from the special formula that Noah and Chanie have put together.
Some might hesitate for a moment when they read that formula does not prescribe the common “inclusion” model, but hear it from a man who’s lived it.
“In the Jewish community right now, the word ‘inclusion’ is the ultimate ‘PC’ term, and yes, ideally, we all want to feel like we’re included in everything we do and that we’re including others, because that’s what community is all about,” Pawliger said.
“But I’ve always been a firm believer that inclusion is only fantastic when it’s effective…one of the main goals of our camp is to give kids the tools to be more included when they come home to their respective environments, and that’s all about taking the individual and giving them the tools to fit into the group better and to cope better – and then working with the group.”
As such, Living Wonders focuses on creating a small, intimate setting in which every camper has the support to truly achieve. Counselors are trained specially for working with different learners, and patience, pacing and uniquely-tailored programming are key.
In other words: It’s a place where everyone can find their strengths, and those strengths can be celebrated. It might be the first positive Jewish experience for a camper and their family, and that experience could lead to quite a few more.
“What we’re doing by teaching these kids those skills – to be able to cope in a group better, to be able to resolve hose behavioral issues to a degree – ultimately we’re not just bringing the kid back to the synagogue or community center, but their family’s coming back,” Pawliger said. “And I think that’s a pretty big deal, if we’re talking about inclusion.”
Indeed, it is the biggest deal: In the face of an increasingly fast-paced and multi-faceted world, Camp Living Wonders is creating community – for everybody.
For more information on Camp Living Wonders, visit camplivingwonders.org.