Camp Ramah, the camping branch of the Conservative Movement of Judaism, has provided special needs populations with an exciting camping experience for over 30 years. The Tikvah (meaning hope in Hebrew) Programs are located in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, California and Canada and serve Jewish adolescents with developmental delays, mental retardation, autism, Aspergers syndrome, Down syndrome and other conditions. The overall website for Ramahs special needs program is http://www.campramah.org The website for Camp Ramah in New England, http://www.campramahne.org, states, Tikvah campers are placed in special programs that allow them to integrate into camp activities whenever possible, with appropriate supports, and special educational and social skill development.
The Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England is located in Palmer, Massachusetts. It is an 8-week program for teens 13-21. Campers enjoy a variety of activities and electives, such as swimming, boating, archery and more. Pre-vocational skills training and social skills groups are other components of the program. The Tikvah Program is further divided into Amitzim for ages 13-17 and Vocational Education (Voc Ed) for 18-21 year olds. Members of the Tikvah Program go on an overnight camping trip and take several small trips throughout the summer, such as attending baseball games, horseback riding, and blueberry picking.
Camp counselors are college or graduate students carefully screened and trained by the Tikvah program director at each camp. Former Camp Ramah New England campers make up the majority of counselors. The Tikvah Program Director Howard Blas states, We know how much the program offers campers with special needs. It is the impact on the typical campers and staff members which is truly exceptional–there are hundreds of stories of former campers who went on to work as counselors in the Tikvah program, and on to become pediatricians, psychologists, professors in special education–or just more sensitive people. Two to three counselors live in the bunks with the Tikvah Program campers. Each summer there are an average of 23 Amitzim campers and 12 Voc Ed campers, with the camper to staff ratio being about 2 to 1.
Tikvah Program campers are fully immersed and enmeshed into a variety of aspects of Camp Ramah. They have three meals a day with the rest of Camp Ramah campers. They also participate in such camp-wide activities as Sabbath services, song and dance festivals and plays, as well as during some electives and other activities. The campers with special needs, like all campers at Camp Ramah, put on a divisional play in Hebrew and English near the end of each summer. The Amitzim campers meet with fourteen year old buddies from other divisions of camp two times a week. They have the opportunity to do a variety of activities together such as go on nature walks, rehearse lines for the play, listen to music together, etc.
Fifteen and sixteen year old campers also interact with Amitzim members during swimming, sports, and in the process of preparing to become future camp counselors.
The Voc Ed members, who are also full members of the Ramah community, can be found learning hospitality skills by preparing guest rooms for valued guests to the camp, delivering mail to other campers, helping recycle, picking vegetables from the gardens for meals and much more.
Howard Blas is the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England. He has a Masters of Social Work and a Masters of Education. His relationship with the Tikvah program began in 1984 when he began serving as a counselor. Howard believes parents are the experts on their children and that communication with parents is essential. The parents are truly amazing, Howard expresses, It is not easy sending your child from Minnesota, Florida, Iowa and Kansas (as well as closer destinations) to camp in Massachusetts — for eight weeks. I always tell the parents that I am an over communicator — I would prefer they call and email too much rather than too little. I often pick up the phone to tell families to simply report on the wonderful day to day things we did — swimming, blueberry picking, archery…
The Tikvah Program has other exciting news. Funding was obtained for a recent summer trip for the Vocational Education program to go to Chapel Haven to visit past campers and learn more about options for the future. Chapel Haven was featured in a past issue of our newsletter and provides special education and independent living resources for adults with cognitive disabilities, http://www.chapelhaven.org Howard Blas had also recently lead two twelve-day trips to Israel for current Tikvah campers and alumni of the program. Their trip focused on learning about Israels culture and history. Finally, the Tikvah Program received funding for a three year pilot program to establish an inclusion program for younger campers. An additional counselor will be added to bunk with the campers, creating 1:3 counselor to camper ratio. A consultant has been hired and everyone is very eager to move into this new chapter of the Tikvah Program.