Crusade for Children Awards Grant to JCC’s Yachad Program

Through the Yachad inclusion program, the JCC Summer Camp welcomes children with special needs with open arms and an army of advocates.

Yachad pairs campers with special needs with advocate counselors who help make the camp experience fun, comfortable and manageable. The advocates are provided at no extra cost to parents.

The program just received a $4,200 grant from the Crusade for Children, which covers 400 hours of one-on-one advocate services, according to Betsy Schwartz, Senior Director of Camping and Youth Services.

“Yachad means ‘together’ or ‘united’ in Hebrew,” Schwartz said. “We at camp believe every child can make a friend, every child can participate and every child can succeed. We’re empowering these children to grow throughout the camp experience.”

Yachad is a highly individualized program, and the advocate role varies widely depending on the needs of each camper.

“It really ranges from being side by side the entire camp day to maybe the child not even realizing that the advocate is assigned to them,” said last summer’s Yachad Director Miranda Smith. “The goals are all different depending on the child. Success for one child may be staying with his or her group all day. Success for another may be integrating into one activity.” Smith said some of the children who don’t need constant attention have advocates who hang back with the other counselors and jump in as needed.

Since the summer of 2012, the camp has been providing specially trained advocates for campers with conditions including autism, Down Syndrome, Asperger’s, ADD, ADHD, developmental delays, behavioral and emotional disorders and hearing and visual impairment.

Determining if and how Yachad can help a particular child is a very involved and specialized process.

“It’s customized via multiple conferences between the child’s parents, myself, the Yachad director and the advocate,” Schwartz said. “For any parent who is considering summer camp, if there’s any question as to whether a child would benefit, we encourage them to err on the side of checking it out. We offer many levels of support and we try very hard to accommodate the parents.”

The program has blossomed. Schwartz said the first summer Yachad was implemented, it had 5 children participating. By last summer that number had grown to 35. Smith said two of the main challenges the advocates and the children face together are dealing with changes in the schedule and transitioning from one activity to another. Minor shifts can cause a lot of stress for some of the campers with special needs.

One of the tools advocates use to help ease that tension is an illustrated schedule clearly depicting the day’s activities. Advocate and child spend time in the morning going over the schedule, and if something has changed; say, the pool is closed and there won’t be a swimming session, the advocate can calmly tell the camper in advance what is scheduled in its place.

“There may still be a problem, but at least you’re preparing them at the beginning of the day,” Schwartz said. “The advocate’s job is to help and learn that child’s triggers.” Completing one task and moving on to another is also something that can stifle a camper with special needs, especially if a part of the day they love is coming to an end, or they have become ultra-focused on a particular activity.

If they’re doing arts and crafts, for instance, an advocate may stop a camper’s project early so they can get a head start on cleanup and stay on schedule. One of Yachad’s main goals is for the camper to absorb an advocate’s advice and strategies to the point where he or she is confident enough to navigate camp without assistance.

“The ultimate success story would be that by week four or five of camp, the child’s advocate is available but isn’t being used as much, and by the end of camp that advocate has moved on and is working with another child,” Smith said. “That happened with three children last summer. We started them with advocates and weaned them off. Ideally, the child starts with that support and picks up on skills and builds tolerance and motivation to interact without the advocate.”

Smith added that the Yachad program enriches camp life for all the children, not just the ones assigned to an advocate.

“It certainly has more of an obvious influence on children with special needs, but it also plays an important role for children who are developing typically by integrating them with children with different needs,” she said. “It teaches there are things to learn from each and every child they encounter, and friendships with them are possible and fun and enjoyable. It really meets the developmental needs of the children the program directly assists and the children surrounding them.” Smith said the advocates are so adept at their jobs that the other campers have picked up on their methods.

She recalled one kindergarten group that seamlessly started taking responsibility for a fellow camper with special needs.

Smith said the group members would inform the little girl when an activity was about to wrap up in a few minutes and amiably encourage everyone to start cleaning up early. “By the end of the summer, her group members were playing the role of advocate,” Smith said. “Seeing the peers take on the role of friend and advocate is really neat.”

For more information about Yachad, contact Betsy Schwartz, 502-238-2708 or

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