“Where do your children go to school?” This innocuous question is not something that gives most people pause. But in our case, I have to weigh how much I am willing to disclose.
On the surface we seem like a very typical New York Jewish family. We have three kids. We belong to a large synagogue and have a strong network of friends and family close by. We are involved in many Jewish and communal causes and we feel fortunate to send our children to Jewish day schools and Jewish camps. The thing is, two of our three children have special needs. As a result, we have three kids in three different schools.
When I do disclose this, I often get the follow up question, “How does your daughter handle all of this?” We know that being a typically developing child in an otherwise special needs household can sometimes feel like being Marilyn in the “The Munsters.” When one child’s needs are so different from the other two, what seems typical on the outside can actually cause the mainstream child to feel isolated within the family.
For our daughter, though, the resentment was very different. She is generally not embarrassed by her brothers’ social delays or the fact they are not doing things that other brothers might do, but, at times, she feels a bit of a loss. At her sleepaway camp, they take pictures of siblings on picture day. I remember the first time they took the pictures. She was so upset at the thought that she may never have the opportunity to do this, even though she has two siblings, because she didn’t think her brothers could ever attend the same summer camp as her.
Fortunately, our daughter found there was a way to get herself and others into the siblings’ picture. And it was right at her own camp. Last summer her camp launched an inclusion program. The launch of the program coincided with her bat mitzvah, and she had been looking for a mitzvah project that had personal significance, so it was a perfect fit. She had the summer to meet the kids who participated in the program and speak a bit with the staff. In these children, she saw her brothers, but more important, she saw how her friends and bunkmates gain love and respect for, and build frienships with, the kids who need just a little extra support.
What struck her, and us, is that inclusion camping is not just important for the children participating in the program, but for the camp as a whole. In her bat mitzvah speech, she elaborated on the importance of inclusion, saying, “It teaches my friends and I to be more sensitive of others strengths and weaknesses and needs….it helps us realize that we are all quite the same and that our differences can help us grow as individuals.”
In addition to bringing awareness, our daughter is seeking to help fund the program. She has donated a portion of her bat mitzvah money, and encouraged people to make a donation in leiu of gifts—as well as planning a lemonade stand fundraiser this spring. Fundraising for this program is important, as our daughter is well aware that parents of special needs children often pay more for school, activities, and therapies. She’s proud that her camp does not want to differentiate tuition based on the program their child attends and wants to help them attain fulfill that mission.
It is very exciting for us as family to see the Jewish community embracing such programs more and more. My oldest child is 15, and I can tell you that this was not the case when he was young. Fortunately, the landscape is quite different than it was. Both schools and camps in the Jewish community are offering options to address a range of special needs. We specifically see the benefits of these options in our own household. One of our sons does better in a program that caters more to his specific needs; my other son thrives in inclusion classroom with support. My eldest son’s camp started as a segregated program and now is just a separate division of a large Jewish camp. He thrives taking advantage of all the facilities and electives his camp can offer. My youngest goes to a mainstream day camp where he is offered support.
As a parent with three very different kids, I believe we need a plethora of choices for families. Our community must continue to develop both stand-alone and inclusion programs that best serve as many children’s requirements as possible. As parents, we could not be prouder that our daughter sees this goal as valuable, and sought to achieve it in her own way.