Hamodia: Camp HASC Speaks the language of the heart

By Esther Nemetsky

 

Camp HASC! The name alone conjures up a feeling of pride that, as Jews, our ahavas Yisrael extends to all, regardless of ability.

Prior to visiting Camp HASC, I was fortunate to have a discussion with Mr. Shmiel Kahn, camp director and senior administrator, whose parents founded the camp in 1972. Mr. Kahn shared with me how innovative and forward-thinking his parents were when they established Camp HASC. He reminded me that in the early days those with disabilities were not accepted by the Orthodox and chassidic communities as they are today. The pioneering establishment of a camp to address the needs of those with disabilities within the frum community was nothing less than ground-breaking.

Mr. Kahn reflects, “My parents were committed to creating a state-of-the-art camping experience that was both therapeutically sound and uncompromising in terms of its adherence to halachah, hashkafah and kashrus. My parents envisioned that every camper, regardless of degree of disability, staff and administrators would daven three times a day, bentch after each meal and celebrate Shabbosos with a true oneg and simchah. They believed that religious observances should not be compromised to any extent just because people had a disability or were working with people with disabilities.”

To illustrate the point, Mr. Kahn alerted me to the central role the shul plays in camp to this very day. “The campers love coming to shul. Davening starts at 8:00 a.m. and takes at least an hour. The counselors put tefillin on everyone over bar mitzvah. Some campers line up with mike in hand to recite the Birchos Hashachar. Campers and counselors sing every part of the davening to the extent that the shul rocks from singing — but all campers can daven in their own way. For some it may be as fundamental as yelling and screaming.

“Friday night Shabbos is huge. We sing the Carlebach nusach, every word from Lechu Neranah to Lecha Dodi. Singing, clapping, dancing — a true celebration of the Shabbos Malkah.”

Mr. Kahn concluded by saying that Camp HASC has grown in terms of size, scope and number of campers and staff beyond what his parents could ever have imagined and yet Camp HASC remains true to their core principles.

Focus on What the Campers Can Do

With this introduction, I felt well prepared for my recent visit to Camp HASC, where I was moved, but not surprised, by the sign at the entrance, “V’ahavata L’rei’acha Kamocha.”

It was a hot summer day so Rabbi Judah Mischel, the executive director, first took me to the HASC café for a drink. There, lattes, ice cream and drinks were being served by one of the counselors, ably assisted by camper David Markowitz. David was way too busy with customers to be interrupted for an interview. Later, he explained why he loves his job at the café, “Everybody is happy when they come to get ice cream, and I am so happy with them … it is so much fun!”

This approach, to focus on what the campers can do, and provide them with opportunities to do those things, to identify what they can enjoy and what they can experience, exemplifies Camp HASC. Though virtually all the campers, who range in age from six to 60, have some degree of intellectual impairment, from mild to profound, and varying physical challenges, the thrust of all my conversations with the staff was on the children’s abilities, rather than their disabilities.

More than that, the counselors and staff deeply appreciate the special neshamah of each of their campers. As Rabbi Mischel, sitting in his tiny office, told me, “As I look outside this window I see 900 people, about 300 campers and 600 staff, and every single person is chashuv, created b’tzelem Elokim, and a ben yachid to the Ribbono shel Olam. That’s what drives us: to reveal the abilities and mission of each person here and to connect with their neshamah, regardless of what they cannot do.”

The HASC program tries hard to achieve that goal. Rabbi Avi Pollak and Dr. Rayzel Yaish are the boys’ and girls’ head counselors. Rabbi Pollak describes the program, “All of our activities are designed so each camper can participate at their level. Many of our campers are nonverbal but they too can participate — because we all speak the language of the heart.”

Theme Days

Each day, just like in any other camp, has its own theme. One day was circus day, another water day, another Israel day and the activities, especially night activity, are connected to the theme. “What’s unique,” he explained, “is that we make sure that each camper can participate at their level. For example, for water night activity every single station had to have a sensory and tactile component. There was a ship that the recreation team built for those campers who could appreciate that and a water sponge fight for campers who were at that level.”

Dr. Yaish provides examples of some of the daily activities the campers partake in: calisthenics, biking, baking, arts and crafts, playground time, and swimming. Each activity is carefully planned to suit each camper. Campers use adaptive bikes appropriate for severely handicapped children. Baking is broken into many small steps, including simple stirring, and done at specially modified counters that are wheelchair accessible. The pool becomes a site for hydrotherapy.

The younger campers, less than 21, also participate in a formal special education and therapy program, based on each child’s individual needs. In the upbeat camp atmosphere, where the campers have constant one-on-one attention from their counselors, many campers make strides that no one dreamed possible. They call these the HASC miracles.

Just last week, Rabbi Mischel tells me, “An 11-year-old boy who had been in camp for five weeks took his first step. His parents drove up to see him.” It was no coincidence. Kids make such strides because the counselors are also trained in therapy and carry it over during the day, outside of formal therapy sessions.

Rabbi Mischel recalls a teenage boy with autism who had never spoken, but, “A few years ago, during the camp season said ‘I love you’ for the first time ever. It was his first sentence and his parents came down and he said it to them.”

Not all campers will show obvious improvement, but just as important to the staff is to make the campers as happy as possible, to connect with them. The camp has found that music is often the key to that connection. Camp HASC is famous for its music and ruach and at least three times a week Jewish singers come to entertain. There’s a recreation team of 25 people who organize the concerts.

As Rabbi Mischel says, “You think it would be heavy and depressing here, but adaraba, it’s just the opposite. Full of life, vitality, simchah, excitement.”

All the staff feel that the incredible devotion of the counselors is what makes Camp HASC work. The counselors come down several days before camp starts to receive intensive training in how to deal with their individual campers. They also attend workshops throughout the summer by Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Epstein, director of staff development and clinical research.

He explains that, “My focus is on nurturing the counselor’s growth for both themselves and relative to their campers. There is no question, that if you finish a summer here, you are a changed person for the better — with more empathy, more compassion. I ask the counselors, ‘What was your attitude to kids with disabilities before the summer?’ Many answer, ‘I would cross the street. I was uncomfortable.’ And yet, here I see those counselors, walking around with their arm draped around these campers. They feed them, shower them, clean them, and love them. The counselors develop their middos, become moser nefesh for someone else. They learn what they are capable of. The counselors work so hard, yet they are so happy.”

Counselor Shimmy Borgen reflects, “Working at Camp HASC these past few summers has really helped shape the way I understand my achrayus to others, and how essential that is in avodas Hashem.”

Counselor Natan Sternhart puts it like this, “Everything here at camp is on the level of davening … when we are in the pool, helping our campers eat in the dining room, getting them dressed, putting the campers to sleep — even just ‘regular’ fun. Everything is geared toward their needs, and is like one long tefillah.”

Bais Refuah

It’s hard to remember, surrounded by all the upbeat energy in camp, how much medical attention many of these campers need. Mrs. Alyssa Sacks, RN, is the medical director of the Bais Refuah. She and co-medical director, Mrs. Estee Horowicz, described the staggering scope of the Bais Refuah’s work. (Even the infirmary gets a positive name — house of healing, rather than house of infirmity.) It is staffed by a full-time doctor, support staff, paramedics, and 15 nurses!

Mrs. Sacks explains, “Almost every camper is on multiple medications. We give out about 10,000 dosages a day. Some, we dispense orally, some directly into the abdomen, others by injection or inhalation. We also do specific treatments such as daily respiratory therapy, and suctioning, and cough assist for the many kids with respiratory issues. We deal with wound care, diaper rashes, and catheter issues.”

And frequently there are emergencies. For example, shunts used to treat increased pressure in the brain may malfunction. Seizures occur commonly, and because many campers are so medically involved, the medical staff can be contacted at all times by the counselors. The medical staff begins reviewing campers’ records in January so they can be fully prepared by the summer. Yet, despite the overwhelming amount of work, Alyssa “loves it. It’s so rewarding. Full-time bikur cholim. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world watching the counselors just giving and giving to their campers. And when we see families on visiting day, we realize what a chessed we do giving these parents a respite.”

As I leave Camp HASC, I pass a sweet, symbolic scene. Counselor and camper, dressed in matching clothing walking down the path.

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