At camp, we have a tradition of “welcoming home” anyone who enters our community, whether it’s for the first time or the 10th. As the inclusion coordinator at URJ Camp Harlam, this phrase takes on special meaning for me – it represents the commitment we have to make everyone feel as though this community was made for them. This philosophy is at the forefront of everything we do – from our camper care department fulfilling the needs of individual campers, to our food services accommodating every food allergy and eating lifestyle, to our affinity groups that gives our Jews of Color and LGBTQ+ campers a place to share their identity with others. This is especially true when we think of the ways in which we have been responsive to needs due to the physical and cognitive disabilities of campers. Because we received a grant to make capital improvements for increased accessibility through Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Yashar Initiative, we have been able to respond in incredibly meaningful ways.
At Harlam this summer, we “welcomed home” a new camper with a prosthetic leg into our rising eighth grade unit. When Jacob lost his leg after being diagnosed with ewings sarcoma in 2018, his mothers were hopeful that he one day would be able to live a normal life of a teenage boy. Thanks to the Yashar grant, we built a brand new ADA-accessible bunk in boys camp and were able to make their dream possible this summer. As a community, we were thrilled to be able to offer this camper the ease of accessibility as he prepared for his first summer at Harlam. For the moments that he doesn’t put on his leg (like when he goes to the pool), it’s helpful to have the ramp for him to easily leave and enter the bunk. The handicapped accessible shower with the shower seat makes it possible for Jacob to shower more easily. He wrote home to his moms during the first week of camp and told them, “I love camp because I finally feel normal.”
Toward the end of the summer, his mothers shared with us that “when Jacob got sick, all five of us fell apart – all in different ways. [His sisters] lost life. They lost happiness. They had to grow up too quickly with us not around, and of course, Jacob had to experience thoughts of life and death that no child should ever have to. He was really sick through chemo. We were worried about finances because we knew we would never have enough money to send them to camp. We have never-ending lifelong medical bills for him. But, we pushed and pushed because in our hearts as kids who experienced overnight camp, we knew they NEEDED this. Camp gave them what they lost, not only during COVID, but what they lost over the last 2.5 years. They could finally be kids! We thank you from the bottom of our hearts!!!”
We all know that camp is good for kids, and we know that this year, camp literally saved kids’ lives. But for this kid, we know that camp gave BACK his life. The connections he made with his bunkmates, counselors and unit created the bonds of a family that will be with him for the rest of his life. Without Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Yashar Initiative, funded by The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, and the generosity of our community who raised dollars to build this bunk, this summer would not have been possible for Jacob. It is incumbent on us to make sure that camp continues to be accessible for all kids who want to be a part of this incredible community. We are blessed to have Jacob and his sisters be in ours.
Lori Zlotoff, LCSW has served as Camp Harlam’s inclusion coordinator since 2015 as a recipient of the Ruderman Family Foundation grant through Foundation for Jewish Camp. Over the last 7 years, she has been proud to help accommodate hundreds of campers into Harlam’s Open and Safe community. She is from Port Washington, New York, where she lives with her husband and two daughters.