Feature: On equal footing

At Camp Shutaf, participants learn from each other's differences, as three-quarters of the campers and four staffers have special needs.

On a warm day in April, just before Pessah, 34 campers aged six to 14, and 15 staff members meet at the Ein Yael Active Museum in southern Jerusalem. At first glance, this camp appears like any other. Camp Shutaf is unique, however, because three-quarters of its campers and four of its staff members have special needs. "The camp is all about not feeling different and at the same time learning from each other's differences," says co-camp director and co-founder Beth Steinberg. Steinberg and her counterpart Miriam Avraham, both mothers of children with disabilities, started the camp last May, which just completed its third session over Pessah and is gearing up for its fourth session this summer. The idea for Camp Shutaf, the two explain, came in response to a gap in the Jerusalem day camp market. While camps for kids with severe disabilities such as autism or pervasive developmental delay (PPD) existed, there were no comprehensive camp programs geared specifically toward kids with less severe disabilities such as light to moderate retardation, light to moderate learning disabilities and behavioral problems. While Shutaf is open to children with all types of disabilities, it aims to bridge that gap, say Steinberg and Avraham. Over the Pessah holiday, the campers got together at Ein Yael for six days, from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., to participate in daily activities such as arts & crafts and horseback riding at the Saba Jack Ranch next door. In addition, each day guest instructors led different activities such as archery, juggling, hip-hop dance lessons and movement classes. Many of the campers attend special needs schools in Jerusalem. For those who don't, Camp Shutaf affords the opportunity to be with other kids with special needs and to develop genuine friendships in a less stressful environment. Ya'acov, 14, has special needs but attends a mainstream school. He says he really enjoys camp, particularly cooking with his friend Akiva. "We want the kids to have real friends," says Steinberg. "We want to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable and can form relations." Linda Gradstein, mother of camper Netanel Churgin, seven, who does not have special needs, says: "What struck me most was that Netanel didn't talk about if a kid had special needs. He just said, 'I did this or I did that with my friend.' Ze'ev Kainan, a guest archery teacher and father of camper Talia, seven, adds: "Adults are sometimes uncomfortable and hesitant around kids with special needs; but the younger you are, the less you know the difference." Gradstein agrees. "When they become friends [kids with special needs and those without], there is no stigma." The atmosphere at Shutaf also "allows kids who are used to receiving to give," adds Avraham. A Bogrim (adolescents) program, offered for the first time this spring, aims to give young adults (aged 16-21) with special needs the same opportunity to care for others while gaining work experience. Four young men took part in the first round of the Bogrim program. They are "models" for the campers, particularly those with disabilities, says Avraham. The Bogrim program allows participants to "work and be respected for what they're doing." Ofir Karel, 16, from Jerusalem, says that working at the camp is challenging, particularly setting up for the many activities, but he enjoys working with the kids. What is his favorite part of the job? "Hakol sababa [It's all good]," he says. Na'amah Paz, 21, a counselor from Gush Etzion, says the Bogrim "are an important part of the staff; they make sure that everyone is included and that no one falls behind." At the start of camp, says Paz, the mix of kids with disabilities and those without was "awkward," but now they "help one another, mix together and work on an equal basis." Kids break barriers faster than adults, she comments. Volunteer Coren Feldman, 15, from Beit Shemesh, says, "Kids with special needs really feel a sense of belonging here." She adds that at the camp, "Other kids relate to them normally." For more information about Camp Shutaf, call Miriam at 0547-290114 or Beth at 0525-594257.