A summer camp for children with neurodevelopmental disorders is gearing up for its second season in the North Georgia mountains.
Camp Ramah Darom, located two hours north of Atlanta in Clayton, is holding its four-week Tikvah program for 12- to 17-year-olds who have autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, intellectual disability or communication disorder.
Clinical psychologist Audra Kaplan, the program’s director, said the camp is all about inclusion. “Our goal is for them to be integrated as part of the bigger community, but we break it down so they can learn a skill set and feel really confident, and we’re not just throwing them into a situation that might be overwhelming,” she said. “We really want to give them skills so they can walk in and be part of the community in a meaningful way.”
The program is “fully integrated into a community that is steeped in Jewish celebration, learning, and ritual,” according to its website.
“For me, it’s the philosophical idea of including everyone in our community — people of different ability levels,” Kaplan said. “So to me that’s what inclusion means. It’s a way for children with disabilities who otherwise, without support, could not attend camp.”
Ramah Darom has other programs for all kinds of children and is a year-round facility. The venue is located on 122 acres in the Appalachian Valley and can be rented for synagogue retreats, weddings, b’nai mitzvah and school groups. It’s next to a lake and surrounded by wilderness and hiking trails that form part of the Chattahoochee National Forest.
Kaplan has worked with children and families for more than 20 years and grew up going to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. She worked as a psychologist at Jewish Child and Family Services in Chicago, where she helped develop a program specific to kids with autism.
Camp staff members can address each child’s special needs, including communication difficulties and sensory issues.
“We have counselors who can be with them the whole day if necessary,” Kaplan said. “There’s a definite continuum, and autism looks different for every individual.”
Jewish educators were consulted to determine the right curriculum for campers, she said. “Campers arrive with various levels of Jewish education; we have a lot of information before they come, from teachers, parents, therapists.”
Campers can participate in waterfront activities and archery and can learn to cook in Hebrew. The kids also have chores to do in their cabins, “which is a great way for them to practice their independent living skills,” she said.