Elyssa Hammerman is returning for her fourth summer at Ramah Outdoor Adventure as the director of our inaugural Tikvah program, for children with developmental special needs. Elyssa wrote the post below:
“Everyone should be able to go to sleep away camp, it’s the most amazing place in the world.” I remember thinking this to myself when I was first a counselor about ten years ago at a camp in Canada. Since that time, I have tried to find ways to work with children with special needs in a camp setting.
I began my journey working at a therapeutic residential treatment center. It was an incredible experience. I was at Camp Towhee in Haliburton Ontario. The staff was phenomenal. It was an older staff of passionate individuals who mostly came from the fields of education, psychology, special education, or an outdoor/camp related field. The campers challenged themselves and grew as adolescents. While I loved working in the secular camp environment, I felt that I would be able to offer more if I could connect my love for Judaism with my passion for working with this special needs population.
Although I had never previously been to Ramah as a camper or staff, I had heard that Ramah ran programs for children with special needs at all of their overnight camps.
Having just moved to Denver, I was excited to learn that Ramah was opening a new camp in the Rocky Mountains. I immediately called the new director, Rabbi Eliav Bock and asked whether the new camp would have a Tikvah program for campers with special needs. He explained that one was not planned for the initial summer, but could be a possibility on the horizon. He suggested that I spend the summer working in another Tikvah program to learn about the basics of the Ramah Tikvah model, and then bring my new experience back to Ramah Outdoor Adventure. It was for this reason that I found myself as the Jewish Educator at Ramah in California working with their campers and staff members with special needs.
After helping create the program at Ramah Outdoor Adventure during its first two summers, my dreams of opening a Tikvah program at our unique Jewish wilderness camp is finally coming true.
Perhaps the biggest challenge we have faced so far is determining the scope of the program. When entering the world of developmental special needs, there is such a broad range of possibilities that we had to choose one area on which to focus. We decided to limit our Tikvah program to 11-15 year olds, because we believe that developmentally, campers will be at similar ability levels. We chose to focus on campers with high functioning autism. Because of the rustic nature of the program, it was imperative that campers in the Tikvah program be physically healthy, relatively independent, and able to express their needs.
I have spoken with many families over the past months who have asked us to expand our program to accommodate their children. While we would love to take any child who wanted to experience the magic of Jewish camp, we also know that for the program to succeed we need to focus our energies on a group of children who developmentally were in a similar place. In the future we might expand beyond the narrow scope we have currently defined, and in the meantime we direct families to broader Tikvah programs offered at other Ramah camps.
Tikvah campers will be participating in all of our programs at camp! They will go on two overnights to a quiet corner of our property and will roast marshmallows, hike, tell stories, and sleep under the stars. I’m looking forward to hearing their stories when they return!
As Ramah Outdoor Adventure has grown in its first two years, I can only begin to dream where this Tikvah Program is headed! I can’t wait to tell you more after this summer!!