At the Tucson Jewish Community Center, making sure camp is inclusive

For the 400 school-age children attending Camp J at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, camp is an opportunity to make friends and beat the heat; however, for the 33 children in the Camp J Inclusion Program, it is also an opportunity to put their “special needs” labels aside and play just like everyone else. Since 1997, when former Camp Director Betsy Cowan initiated the inclusion program, children with various developmental disabilities have been able to participate in camp with the aid of a camp-appointed advocate. Advocates are specially trained staff    members who work with children on a 1-1 to 1-3 ratio to ensure that the needs of each individual are met.

Kristin Taft
Kristin Taft

Kristin Taft, director of special needs services, hires and supervises the advocates. Advocates receive special training, says Scott Zorn, director of children, youth and camping services. “All camp counselors and advocate staff are trained together in a comprehensive three-day training program. In addition, advocates, directors and unit heads must attend and pass Article 9 training, which is a four-hour training specific to working with children with special needs.”

For 12-year-old inclusion program participant Tyler Schwarz, who was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, his relationship with his advocate is a large part of what makes attending Sports Camp at Camp J such a great fit. “Tyler’s relationship with his advocate is fantastic,” says Tyler’s father, Pete Schwarz. “His advocate is a young man who loves and is passionate about sports, and Tyler responds really well to that.”

Having an advocate who understands the needs of each child helps inclusion participants and parents feel comfortable during the events of the day. Nine-year-old Dylan Hester makes it a goal to participate in as many activities as possible. “His advocate is really good about knowing if an activity is right for Dylan,” says Amber Hester, Dylan’s mother. “They know if an activity might be too loud for a child like Dylan,” who has autism, “and they know how to make accommodations.”

The goal of the inclusion program is to enable campers to participate in as much of the programming as possible. But as Zorn notes, “There are times, such as during our Macabbia games, that loud noise will be present. During these times, we always offer an alternative for our campers that might have trouble with that environment, like having the room next door set up with art, crafts and other projects available.” All field trips are planned with consideration given to the abilities of all campers. In past years, some campers used wheelchairs or walkers, although none do this year.

Currently, the inclusion program accounts for about 15 percent of total camp enrollment, and as camp enrollment increases, so does the number of openings in the inclusion program. “In the last few years, the rate of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in Arizona has increased from one in every 100 children to one in 86. As needs increase, the demand for our programs increase,” says Taft. “We have a lot of families who contact us every year and want to join the inclusion program. Right now there is a wait list, and there has been for the past few years.”

Pete Schwarz, who currently serves as the president of the board of directors at the Autism Society of Greater Tucson, advocated for his son Tyler as soon as he heard about the inclusion program at Camp J. “I knew there was a waiting list,” says Schwarz, “so the first year, I kept calling and bugging the staff to get them to meet Tyler and see why the program would be a perfect fit, and it has been.”

For more information, contact Taft at 299-3000, ext. 172 or ktaft@tucsonjcc.org.

Laura Wilson Etter is a freelance journalist, grant writer and artist in Tucson.