‘Changing a culture’: Inclusivity at camp requires adaptation
InclusionSummer Camp

‘Changing a culture’: Inclusivity at camp requires adaptation

Quest for inclusion prompts new practices and familiar questions about caring for children

Staff and campers enjoy July 4 at J&R Day Camp. (Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh)
Staff and campers enjoy July 4 at J&R Day Camp. (Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh)

Inclusion expert Aprilynn Artz pulled up to the Jewish Community Center’s South Hills Day Camp. She exited her car and noticed children and counselors surrounding the flagpole joining in a timeless summer activity.

“Everybody was engaged,” Artz said.

The mental health professional saw several children with headphones.

A few kids with sensitivity toward auditory stimuli wore headphones during previous activities. For others, Artz said, this was their first time using the gear.

Artz kept observing.

Administrators were on site. Extra professionals were, too, but they were less noticeable. The scene she said, “was wholesome and fun and delightful and supportive. And it just looks like the best time ever.”

Summer camps nationwide are aiming to increase their inclusivity. Achieving that goal requires more than bolstering diversity. It means creating a “sense of belonging and value,” according to the American Camp Association.

Inclusivity isn’t just “serving neurodiverse kids or kids with diagnoses. This is about changing a culture,” Rachael Speck, the JCC’s division director of Children and Family, Day Camping and Teen Engagement, said.

Expert partnerships

Speck and Artz have worked together for nearly six years. The youth-centered professionals collaborate on improving inclusion at the JCC’s overnight, day camp and after-school programs.

What they’re targeting now is being “truly inclusive,” Speck said, which means if you entered a space “you wouldn’t know who is receiving support and who isn’t.”

Artz is president of Connection: Counseling & Consultation and oversees a team of mental health professionals who serve the community.

For the past year, the practice has partnered with Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh — the Squirrel Hill-based Jewish day school also runs a summer camp.

“April and her team’s work is invaluable,” Hillel Academy Principal Rabbi Sam Weinberg said.

“They have the unique ability to understand each child and put supports in place so that each child can succeed in each environment.”

Whether at school or camp, inclusion is about reaching the same goal, Artz explained.

“We focus on the social and emotional needs at each place,” she said. “It’s important; if you can’t get along with other people you’re gonna have a harder road.”

Camp and history are ‘real’

More than a decade ago Artz worked at JFCS and ran Quest Camp. The therapeutic program served children with ADHD, anxiety or an autism spectrum disorder diagnoses who struggled with behavior and social relationships.

Artz said she loved the experience and the “amazing bubble” created. The camp was where individuals were “all accepted, where they wanted to come, and they felt comfortable.”

There’s a lot of value in deliberately designed environments, but the wrinkle is they don’t often resemble “real life,” Artz said.

For the mental health professional, the question became, “How do I set these people up for success in the most real situation possible?”

Improving inclusion required entering already existent spaces, with lengthy histories, and creating change, she explained.

Inclusion involves being a mensch. (Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh)

Since 1969, J&R Day Camp has welcomed thousands of children to its 100-acre Monroeville site. Guided by Jewish values, the primarily outdoor institution is perpetually innovating while meeting the community’s needs, said Fara Marcus, the JCC’s chief development and marketing officer.

Artz and Speck said they wanted to increase inclusivity at the camp but recognized the inherent challenges.

“When you go into a pre-established system, you have to be careful because there are people who have been part of a system for a long time, and there is tradition, and you have to be careful that what you are trying to implement does not step on people’s toes,” Artz said.

Many of the employees, counselors and unit heads grew up at camp, Speck said. “They’re the ones that came with all their friends every summer.”

Evolution requires willing parties, so Speck and Artz began with staff training.

“It’s kind of like the influencer model,” Speck said. “When the staff drinks the Kool-Aid and buys in, that spreads like wildfire in the most incredible way.”

Several staffers were invited to become members of the camp’s inclusion team.

“The elevated leadership role is a privilege,” Speck said. “That aspirational arc gives staff something to work toward.”

Another change at the camp involved programming.

Adaptations occurred by “just sprinkling in positive behavior support strategies,” Speck said.

Some of the inclusion-based decisions began up to three years ago. Each choice requires patience, Artz said.

“I have had to learn that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to go along in the same way,” she said. “There will be people who will be confused because it’s not what they’ve always done. And that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be inclusive. It means that it’s new, and new things are sometimes scary or unknown.”

Campers color at South Hills Day Camp. (Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh)

Changing the way people think, or act, is never easy, especially at summer camp. Tradition doesn’t only dictate practice but also builds new memories, so decisions primarily have occurred on a “macro level,” Speck said. “Creating a fully inclusive environment would never, can never, happen if you just have consultants come in at a micro level and push in.”

“There is constant debrief and reflection, a lot of planning, and implementing and revising in real-time during camp and during the non-camp season,” Speck added.

Inclusion, now and next

Summer is almost halfway over. Work remains at J&R, but a transformation is underway. Staff week introduced counselors and unit heads to specific positive behavior support approaches. Members of Artz’s practice and master’s level interns are embedded into camp, assisting campers and groups.

“I’d like to get people excited about positive behavior support so that even a 15-year-old, who’s brand new to camp, can do some of these techniques and set kids up for success,” she said.

Similarly, the inclusion expert desires more proactive calls to families, “making sure we understand what children’s needs are, setting them up with behavior charts, making sure everybody has fidgets and noise-canceling headphones, so that those with sensory needs get those needs met.”

A commitment to inclusivity means meeting demands while thinking ahead, according to Speck.

“Now that we have more neurodiverse campers, they are in our pipeline to become staff. If we are to be truly inclusive, we need to create an environment in which a number of them who desire to be employees can be successful,” Speck said.

Several initiatives have been piloted, but the question remains, “How do we position ourselves to be equipped to employ neurodiverse teens and young adults?” Speck asked.

“Having this inclusion effort be part of our culture benefits the entire camp community,” she said. “I think what I’ve learned is that it’s about more than serving a more neurodiverse population. It is really about changing our approach to how we take care of children.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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