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Yachad Program Helps Special Needs Children Be Successful JCC Campers

JCC Summer Camp is a great for children to make friends, swim, play games and participate in a variety of activities that are so much fun that they don’t even realize they’re learning. Often summer camp experiences can be transformative.

JCC Summer Camp is also a real opportunity for children with special needs to be integrated fully into camp through the Yachad program, which the JCC provides advocates who operate with the core belief that everyone can make a friend and everyone can succeed.

With 21 campers enrolled for over 100 camper weeks, Yachad serves children with a wide variety of issues including OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), autism, Down Syndrome, Fragile X, sensory processing disorders, cerebral palsy and more. There are children who display atypical behaviors or delayed speech, physical disabilities and more. Yet every effort is made to help these children succeed. There are a few places left later this summer.

Early Childhood Assistant Director Angie Hiland, who directs Yachad, gave an example of how the program works. During the first week, one camper was having trouble integrating.

“He and his advocate spent the day getting to know each other,” Hiland said. On the second day, the child and his advocate set a goal of attending regular camp activities just to watch and they could leave if the child wanted to. By the time the pair got to the third activity, he decided to participate. By the end of the week, he had made a maraca and he had gotten into the pool. “It was a huge success.”

After that, the advocate helped the child increase his participation, make a friend and gradually reduced the amount of assistance he needed.

This year, the JCC’s Yachad program is partnered with the National Inclusion Project (NIP), which provided a grant that covers the cost of the advocates so participating families pay only normal camp fees.

NIP also provided training for staff in simple ways to approach inclusion to ensure every child succeeds. Their suggestions include dividing children into small groups to collaborate on projects and adapting the rules of common games to allow a child to participate. For example, if the group is playing kickball and one child has a problem kicking the ball, the counselor can have one child kick while the other child runs. If the child needs help running, another camper can run with him or her.

Hiland has a background working with special needs children, and when she was hired at the JCC three years ago, she began the Yachad program on a small scale. “That is exactly what I was looking to do,” she said. Last year, she grew the program a little, and this year, with help from grant writer Amy Gandell Fouts, she was able to partner with NIP.

Through NIP, Hiland was also able to bring Zach Goble on board. Goble, a child psychologist works with families and groups, giving them a “toolbox” of techniques to use to help children succeed.

“We have five kids a week or so, who have disabilities,” he said. “A lot of them are related to communications, and when they can’t communicate they sometimes have behavior issues. That can mean kicking or screaming or refusal to do activities.” The staff have learned how to deal with them.

Not every child needs an advocate full time. Goble continued, “We have two young men who started camp with advocates but they soon reached the point that they are so ingrained in camp and their counselors are so effective that they don’t even need to have advocates with them.”

In fact, he explained, their integration is so complete that “the other campers in the group are starting to include them.” The campers are “being successful and making friends which is what being in camp is all about.”

Goble shared another story. “We have one young man who has autism and his mother was very concerned that he would need a lot of support here in camp. After the first day or two, we saw he just needed prompting or reminding. Since he can advocate for himself, he doesn’t need an advocate with him and his mother has been so happy that he’s been so successful here. It was very unexpected for her.”

“From my standpoint,” he added, “I work as a school psychologist in the public schools and this has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. I’m seeing young counselors include our campers no matter what their difficulties may be. They want to learn more about these children and want to see them be successful, which makes me want to help them even more.”

While the program is successful for many special needs children, Hiland cautions that Yachad cannot accommodate every issue. “I’m very up front and honest,” she said. “We are a new program and not perfect.” She lets families know if she doesn’t think the JCC can work with their child, but she and her staff do as much as we can.

They try to work with family schedules, too. “We welcome behavior, speech and language, occupational and physical therapists to come during the day to see their patients so families don’t have to do it after camp or at home,” she added.

In addition to the grant from NIP, funding for Yachad comes from the Hannah Marks Fund and the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence. Funding for Yachad for Winter Camp comes from Kosair Charities; and funding for the program for Spring Camp comes from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

For more information about the Yachad program, contact Hiland at 238- 2716 or ahiland@jewishlouisville.org.

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