By Cindy Mindell
For nearly 45 years, Camp Ramah – the summer program of the Conservative movement — has promoted a policy of inclusivity, involving children and young adults in a range of camping programs, from overnight, day, and family camping, as well as vocational-training opportunities.
Ramah’s first Tikvah Program for campers with disabilities was created in 1970 at the camp’s Glen Spey, N.Y. location, and soon thereafter relocated to Camp Ramah in New England, in Palmer, Mass.
Since that time, all eight Camp Ramah locations throughout North America have implemented similar programs. New England’s is the largest, directed by former New Haven resident Howard Blas. Campers with disabilities engage in the regular camping program until age 18, then advance to the vocational-education program, living in a house with resident advisors and spending half-days at job sites around the camp.
“This is what parents were asking for,” Blas says. “When their kids are younger, it’s ‘easier’ in some ways: there’s more structure, the kids are in school fulltime. But when they’re older, there are few transition programs, and we get requests from parents to allow their kids to continue coming to camp after age 18.”
Participants work throughout the camp, including in the small guest house for Shabbat visitors, the only such facility run exclusively by people with disabilities, Blas says. Some of the graduates go on to become salaried Camp Ramah employees.
Blas says that these campers are respected as workers and contributing members of the Ramah community.
“They do important jobs around camp,” he says: “sorting and delivering mail and packages, distributing bathroom and cleaning supplies, helping with the youngest campers, serving at Café Ramah and in the dining room. “They’re seen as people with lots of great abilities.”
Greenwich resident Sarah Klabal has participated in the vocational-education program at Camp Ramah in New England since 2011. She learned about the program from a friend and schoolmate when the two were visiting Florida.
After researching the program, the 23-year-old Klabal told her mother, Maryann Harris, that she wanted to take part. Harris arranged an interview with Blas.
“Howard showed me a video and photos on his laptop,” Klabal recalls. “We talked and at the end, he said he thought I would be good for the program and my mom thought the program would be good for me. I wanted to go because I like working and I like being Jewish.”
“After Sarah’s interview, I could see that she was eager to participate in the program; she talked of nothing else,” Harris says. “My only reservation was that it was more observant on a daily basis than we had been as Reform Jews both in the Midwest and on the East Coast, where we have been for the past 20 years. I asked Sarah how she would feel about observing the Sabbath more traditionally than we were used to, and also how prayers before breakfast would impact her very set morning schedule, as Sarah is on the autism spectrum. She didn’t blink an eye but rather enthusiastically stated that it sounded great! For a child who loved summer camp, Sunday school, and her very special bat mitzvah, not to mention how much she was enjoying her school jobs, the program sounded perfect. How could I say anything but yes?”
During her first two summers at Camp Ramah, Klabal worked in the guest house, at the day camp childcare center, in the mail room, café, and arts and crafts room. This year, she was the photographer for the camp website.
“I could see from the first summer Sarah spent at camp that she felt comfortable and an integral part of a very special community,” Harris says. “Her self-esteem improved and she was generally happier. Sarah is an amazing young lady and also quite challenging at times. She is opinionated, literal, and at times a bit overly dramatic. The Ramah staff takes that in stride and allows her to be who she is. However, they also guide her and teach her ways to get her point across without being disruptive. Sarah is eager to please and responds to the program very positively.”
Klabal says that she has learned a lot in the program. “I learned how to complete work, use a camera better, and I learned to enjoy being around small children more, which was never my favorite thing,” she says. “I am happy to do my job each day.”
Blas says that Camp Ramah in New England continues to invest in the vocational-training program based on feedback from families. “They are telling us how much it does for their kids,” he says. “We know that if you have a job, it does a lot for how you feel about yourself; you’re not being sedentary, you’re active and social. We also teach how to dress for a job and how to behave at work.”
Camp Ramah in New England just hired a full-time director of vocational training so that participants can stay connected throughout the year. The camp hopes to build a new dining room designed to employ vocational-education campers. There is also a new inclusion program for campers with disabilities ages 9 to 16.
Like Camp Ramah in Conover, Wis., whose vocational-education graduates go on to work for local businesses, Blas hopes to develop relationships with area hotel and restaurant corporations that could employ New England program graduates. “If my college-aged kid gets a job working in a restaurant over the summer, he’s gotten all this training and then goes back to college and doesn’t come back,” Blas says. “We have a Connecticut vocational-ed graduate who has been working in a restaurant now for 10 or 15 years.”
Klabal says that she will participate in the vocational-education program next summer and “for as long as they will have me.”
“I like being around people who are Jewish and the friends I have made,” Klabal says. “I like the staff a lot. I feel very comfortable there and I learn a lot.”
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