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The Real Magic of Camp: by Jennifer Phillips, President and CEO of Keshet

Three girls with disabilities smile together at a Keshet camp

Photo Credit: Keshet

When I think of the meaning of “a community of belonging,” it is the community that Keshet has created, particularly at camp. Each summer I sit in the picnic grove at camp, and I look out at our camp community with hundreds of disabled and non-disabled campers and staff and get overwhelmed with emotions. The word that comes to mind is always “magical”—an experience and a privilege you can’t get anywhere else.

Every single day, I see children with and without disabilities participating together in rock climbing, zip lining, swimming, arts and crafts and all the other activities camp has to offer. It’s amazing to see kids who might not otherwise have this camp experience that others take for granted, and be able to grow, flourish and make lifelong friendships in the process. It’s a community where everyone is embraced and supported.

And as beautiful and magical as all that is, that isn’t even the real magic.

The real magic is Friday night Shabbat dinner when hundreds of campers are together singing and dancing. Then suddenly, one camper is overwhelmed by the loud singing and dancing and must go outside for a sensory break. At the same time, a few of her fellow campers follow her outside and create their own outdoor song session. This happens not because staff has told these other campers to go outside and be with their cabinmate, but rather something they want to do on their own. They understand that there are ways to make sure everyone is included and can enjoy Shabbat.

The magic is the encouragement from bunkmates when a teen camper, afraid of the water, is hesitant to head to the ski docks. All of them take turns talking to their friend and being patient as the time goes by. They are willing to miss the boat ride rather than leave their friend behind. When he finally gets on the boat, there are loud cheers of happiness from his friends.

And finally, the magic is friends waiting to begin their card game until their cabin mate returns from taking his nighttime meds. They leave an empty spot in the circle and wait until he gets back to begin the game, no matter how long he’s gone. These campers genuinely want him there, and know the real meaning of friendship.

This inclusive camp community has a positive impact on all campers and staff. For campers with disabilities, they try new things, become more independent, build confidence and make friends. It gives them the message that with support and accommodations, they can do anything that they want, which ultimately can have a profound impact on all campers.

There is another important benefit to inclusion that we do not talk about enough. What we see, hear, and learn as children and young adults influences the opinions, fears, and beliefs we hold as adults. If non-disabled children interact with their disabled peers in camp, they will learn that disability is just part of the human experience throughout the entire lifespan. They will see that disability is not to be feared or stigmatized. They will see that each of us bring differences to the world that make us who we are. They will become compassionate, empathetic, and kind adults who value and respect others and champion the rights of all. As I think about the thousands of campers and staff that have been impacted in our camp community, I am filled with the hope that what we have accomplished what we set out to do. One day I dream that it extends to all parts of communal life and that all our children will know they are welcomed, valued, and belong everywhere! Then I’m certain we will have a community of belonging for everyone and everywhere.

Learn more about inclusive camping in a soon to be published new book, Best Practices for Inclusive Camps. Written by practitioners for practitioners, including Jen Phillips, Best Practices for Inclusive Camps provides a practical take on including youth, with and without disabilities, at camp. Use CAMPPREORDER23 for a 25% discount.

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1 comment… add one
  • ellenbronfeld May 1, 2023, 12:43 am

    My son Noah attended Keshet integrated overnight camp and integrated day camp when he was younger and yes, it was magical for him. Keshet is simply the best!

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