Accepting summer campers with open arms

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Summer is a time for children to go outside, free of the responsibilities of school, and enjoy playing, games and the sun. Unfortunately for some children with special needs many camps that would offer them with the opportunities for summer fun aren’t equipped to provide them with the care they need, but the Gural JCC’s Camp Friendship is.

Camp begins on July 9, and runs for four weeks from noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Campers are dropped off at the JCC, at 207 Grove Ave., Cedarhurst. From there they swim at North Woodmere Park daily, weather permitting. Campers take part in arts and crafts, play music, sports and perform drama, and go on take weekly field trips, often to music or comedy shows, museums, and occasionally arcades or bowling alleys. Yael Schochat, the camp’s director, said that they went to an interactive animal show where campers could see and pet exotic animals. “A lot of kids have trouble sitting still and focusing,” she said. “We try to do activities that will keep them busy and engaged.”

Gural JCC has been running the camp for about six years, according to camp founder Cathy Byrne, the JCC’s associate executive director for older adults and special needs. She described the camp as, “One big family.”

Camp Friendship typically has 15 to 20 campers, Byrne said, and in addition to the professional staff of social workers, nurses and psychologists, each camper has at least one, and sometimes up to three, teenage volunteers called “shadows.” “It teaches a lot about inclusion and acceptance,” Byrne said.

Tara Driller, a Far Rockaway resident, sent her nine-year-old son Yosef to Camp Friendship for the first time last year. Driller said she would have enrolled Yosef earlier, but she didn’t know about the camp. “Other camps couldn’t deal with his needs,” she said, “At Camp Friendship he was accepted with open arms. They were so happy to have him.”

Driller said that Yosef was able to receive individualized attention and that the campers were able to relate to each other. Last summer campers took a field trip to the beach and got surfing lessons from Surf for All, a Long Beach-based organization that teaches people with special needs to surf and enjoy the ocean. Driller called it, “The highlight of [Yosef’s] summer.” “Word should get out,” she added, “there are a lot of people who could benefit.”

Yosef will be busy with additional schooling this summer, but has been able to keep in touch with other campers and shadows through Club Friendship. Once a month, children with special needs, their siblings and many of Camp Friendship’s shadows meet at the JCC to catch up and take part in camp-like activities.

While Schochat said that they will do their best to accommodate all children, she recommended registering by June 20. The four-week program costs $1,100. She said there are scholarships available for families that need financial assistance. Contact Schochat at either (516) 569-6733 ext. 213 or Yael.Schochat@guraljcc.com to enroll, or with any questions.