Rachael Speck, Division Director, Children, Youth & Family and JCC Day Camps on March 16, 2023
The JCC of Greater Pittsburgh has a longstanding tradition of addressing the needs of those with physical and intellectual disabilities. This commitment has been explicitly demonstrated through our Merck Summer Therapeutic Inclusion Program for Children with High Functioning Autism (a partnership with UPMC and J&R Day Camp), the JCC’s Gesher program (formerly known as Teen Center) where individuals with disabilities actively participate in regular JCC programs, such as swim, fitness, overnight camp, and by hosting weekly training sessions for Special Olympics participants in track and field, basketball and volleyball.
As the former Assistant Director of Emma Kaufmann Camp (EKC) and through a 2019 grant from the Staunton Farm Foundation, I led the effort in amplifying our inclusion efforts and created what is now known as EKC’s B’Yachad program, which serves children with mild to moderate learning, social or emotional challenges and hidden disabilities. Initially, we created a sensory space and supplemented our seasonal staff with embedded inclusion specialists in each unit. Thanks to the support of the Karp Family Foundation in 2021 , EKC received additional funding and the number of participants hit an all-time high and EKC enhanced its staff training around inclusion. More exciting than starting a much needed program from scratch, though, was the firsthand experience I gained in working with those for whom the program was designed – both campers and their families.
There was one 2019 EKC family in particular that has made a lasting impact on my approach toward inclusion to this day. Mom and Dad met at EKC. Mom was my unit head at EKC when I was 8 years old, and my friendship with Mom was built on our shared love of camp and passion for fundraising to ensure its sustainability for our children and generations to come. One of Mom and Dad’s four children had recently been diagnosed with autism, and I worked closely with Mom and Dad over a four-month period diving in deep to determine what it would take for their child to be successful at camp. We examined every aspect of the typical camp experience and identified potential challenges such as sensory overload in the dining hall, unexpected schedule changes and challenging transitions on inclement weather days, or their child’s difficulty in picking up on social cues with peers, especially during unstructured, less supervised times of the day. In addition to my close relationship with Mom, my determination in making all of this work was also fueled by the fact that Mom and Dad’s three other children all went to EKC.
It was not too long into this journey that it all came together. The accommodations Mom and Dad’s child would need to be successful at camp were ones that every camper, regardless of their abilities or disabilities, could benefit from – tools like visual schedules to know what was coming next, scheduled breaks, controlled choices such as pacing, sitting and reading or taking a walk that serve as an “exit strategy” from situations that might be overwhelming or too difficult. Who doesn’t feel better when they know what to expect or have the option to step away when they are feeling uncomfortable? I finally had a greater understanding and appreciation of what true inclusion was all about.
Fast forward 2 years to January 2021 when the world was nearly completely shut down yet again as the Omicron variant was super spreading around the world. We had been running our virtual learning hub, known as “All Day at the J” for almost 5 months. I was fulfilled, exhausted, worried, grateful, determined and everything in between as I found myself both as a “makeshift principal” and a childcare director during this uncertain time. I felt a unique sense of purpose serving working families by providing childcare and academic support to children in K-6th grade. I remember thinking to myself, “These children in our care are the lucky ones. They get to socialize with their friends, and they get help with their schoolwork all day long.” And yet, so many of them were not OK. They struggled learning through a computer, adhering to the strict confines of their 6-foot table behind their plastic divider, not having in-person support from school counselors, therapists, social workers or support staff they needed to be successful. Children who prior to the pandemic had not shown us at the JCC any concerning behaviors were suddenly fidgety, anxious, sad, resistant, unfocused and angry.
As we started looking ahead to our 2021 summer day camp season, and as the pandemic raged on and continued to cause disruptions in routines, social isolation, uncertainty and angst in children and their families, I realized that we had to be better equipped to meet the emerging mental, emotional, and social needs of our campers and staff.
Pulling from lessons learned at EKC in 2019, we immediately began taking steps to change some of the ways we do things and taking our inclusion efforts to the next level through intentional, innovative programming and support. We began a new partnership with Connection: Counseling and Consultation, Inc. led by April Artz, LPC not only to amplify our ability to support children with the wide array of needs we saw in All Day at the J, but to better serve a growing population of neurodiverse children as a whole and afford them a better opportunity to be successful at camp. We enhanced staff training by implementing Positive Behavior Support (PBS) strategies, increased our number of inclusion staff, and became a practicum field placement site for master’s degree level interns to gain experience in this area at the benefit our campers. We started looking at the camp experience through a lens of “universal design,” ensuring that activities and the overall environment was accessible for as many children and young adults as possible, regardless of their individual needs and/or challenges.
We’ve come a long way in just two years, but our journey continues as we remain focused on more fully incorporating inclusion across our day camps and children, youth and family programs. We now operate from an “inclusion mindset,” ensuring fewer children unnecessarily fall through the cracks simply because their brains are wired differently. In Summer 2022, we served a record 173 neurodiverse children from over 30 different zip codes in our day camp programs. We are committed to creating a sense of belonging for every individual in our camp community, and I could not be more excited as our camp culture is shifting to make this vision a reality. Our staff is bought in to our approach of positive behavior support. They are showing and telling children how to embrace one another’s differences and lean into one another’s strengths.
As Neurodiversity Celebration Week comes to a close, I am thrilled to announce that the JCC has received a $2 million RACP (Redevelopment Assistance Capital Project) grant to support facility improvements at our Monroeville Family Park, home of J&R Day Camp. This grant requires a dollar for dollar match and will be entirely dedicated to improving our physical infrastructure and allowing us to best serve people of all abilities, specifically more neurodivergent school age children throughout Allegheny County. The impact of this investment will be transformative and will propel the JCC forward in becoming a regional leader in out-of-school time inclusion services.
Today, Mom and Dad’s child is a caring, responsible, friendly, Imagine Dragons loving 16-year-old. He worked this past summer as a counselor at J&R Day Camp where he was responsible for up to 15 7-year-old children at a time, and he exudes all the qualities we look for in our camp staff. One would have no idea that he has autism, and that nearly 4 years ago, he almost couldn’t go to camp himself to have the same incredible experience that he gave to all of his campers during the Summer of 2022. Our inclusion efforts are one of the best representations of the JCC’s mission – Nurturing people. Connecting community. Each day. Through every age. Inspired by Jewish values. – and I could not be more excited to be a part of this latest effort in broadening the agency’s audience and enhancing our impact.