JCC Day Camp provides inclusion program for all campers

By Louisa goldman , SENIOR, MICDS

The aptly named “inclusion program” at the  Jewish Community Center aims to do just that: include children with special needs into mainstream society, namely through their summer and day camps. 

Although the JCC sponsors camps that are specifically for children with special needs, the majority of its programs focus on including these children within typical camps. The JCC inclusion initiative, run by Inclusion Coordinator Jasmine Rangel, pairs special needs children with an “inclusion counselor” who assists them with activities at their day camps. 

“It is really amazing how much the special needs children not only learn from the other kids, but how much the other kids learn from the special needs children,” Rangel said.

Across the board, the inclusion program at the JCC camp seems to leave everyone smiling. Parent Carrie McLean, whose son, Ned, has gone to camp with an inclusion counselor for the past three summers, had nothing but good things to say about her child’s camp experience.

“I love the J inclusion program because it gives children with special needs the ability to enjoy a typical summer camp and all of its activities with their typical peers,” McLean said. 

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Counselors said they relish the opportunity to care for their campers’ well-being. Gabe Raskin, a University of Missouri student who started working as an inclusion counselor this year, said the work is much more meaningful than most summer jobs. 

“This is better than other jobs because it’s a unique experience that can’t be found working retail, a restaurant or even as a [typical] counselor,” Raskin said. “The relationship you grow with whomever you’re working with is strong and you really feel that you are making an impact on their individual lives.”

The most important part of this program, the campers, are also more than thrilled by the opportunities that inclusion camp provides them. Molly Katzman, a sixth grader at Miriam School, has been spending her summers at the JCC since she was in first grade, and had an especially exciting time at camp this year. One of the highlights was singing — after lots of planning, persistence and practice — “This Is Me,” a song from Disney’s Camp Rock, as a solo at the group Shabbat performance and service. 

Out of all of the fun and safe activities, Molly said her favorite thing about camp is the field trips, which included a trip to the Incredible Pizza Company, the Science Center and to a bowling alley.

The future of the JCC camp’s inclusion program looks bright. According to Rangel, demand for the program is growing, as the JCC maintains a balance of both campers with special needs and typically developing children. 

“Every year, there are more and more kids,” she said. “We are always looking for more counselors.” 

Trained in childcare and first aid and all at least 18 years old, the counselors are central to the inclusion program’s continued positive impact on the community. The more counselors who jump on board, the more children can benefit from the JCC camp’s program. Raskin expresses his deep gratitude and appreciation for the way he spent his summer. 

“I would definitely consider working as an inclusion counselor for the J again and I highly recommend it for anybody that has any interest in working with [kids with] special needs,” Raskin said. “It is a hard job, but one of the most rewarding.”