This summer, I am working at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, in a whole conglomerate of jobs. I am on the music staff, I am teaching, and I am working with Tikvah, the edah (division) in camp for campers with moderate special needs. Overall, the whole experience is rewarding, but I am learning most from my Tikvah campers.
I’ve worked with special education programs since I was in ninth grade, already eight years ago. I’ve worked with many different kinds of children and adults with many different kinds of disabilities: learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, autism, hemihypertrophy, CHARGE syndrome, and Down’s syndrome are only a few of these. But being in camp with these kids is much different than being in an after-school program or in an in-school classroom setting. Here, in camp, we get to see how these children exist outside of a classroom; how they thrive in everyday life activities; and where their failings are so we can help them stand on their own two feet. In a classroom we talk at our kids a lot. Here, we talk with them.
As many encounters as I’ve had with kids with special needs, I disappoint myself to think that it never struck me how these kids have big aspirations for their lives just like the rest of us do. A graduate of the program and of the additional vocational program told me over lunch during staff week this summer that he wants to be a chemistry teacher when he graduates from college, and is striving as hard as he can in school to be a chemistry major (something that I could probably never do successfully). A current camper expressed to me today that he would never want to come back to this camp on staff because he’d rather be a counselor at a basketball camp. Another wants to be an artist, and she already designs some of her own unique products, which she sells to contribute 50% of her profits to an organization doing work with children who have brain tumors. Another one of my campers told me last week she was a cheerleader in middle school, and would love to be a dancer. And one of the boys, like in any boys’ bunk, wants to grow up to be a rock-and-roll drummer, having been lead in the marching band at his school.
Even we, who encounter individuals with special needs every day, forget sometimes that our kids are “normal” kids in more ways than we can imagine. They strive to mentor each other, to teach each other, to learn the most for themselves, and to be the best version of themselves that they possibly can be. They have hormones like the rest of us. They have crushes on boys (or girls), they enjoy hanging out with friends, they play sports. They sing, they laugh, they get hyper, they cry. I do the same.
Ultimately, as we work with any sort of individuals, whether they have been identified as having special needs or not, we must remember that they aspire. They aspire to do great things just like we do. They aspire to have great successes, and they perspire as they do. It goes back to that wonderful instruction I hung on my wall through my four years at BU, a lesson to everyone: “Stand tall, reach for the stars, and always wear deodorant.”