Family Camp: A Very Special Place

A Federation/Jewish LearningWorks Partnership

Herb Thomas and his family have vacationed in many exotic locales. But ask him about their most fulfilling trip, and he’ll tell that it was one that they just took to Santa Rosa, California, only a couple hours up the road.

Along with his wife, Geri, and their 11-year-old son, Jared, who is on the autism spectrum, they attended Family Camp Weekend for children with special needs and their families, which was held at Camp Newman, where they spent three days in May connecting with other families, celebrating the talents and vitality of their children, and having the time of their lives.

"From the moment we got there, it seemed like time stopped," said Herb from his office in Alameda. "Everyone was welcoming, everyone participated, and Jared was just smiling from ear to ear the entire time. By the way, so was I."

Those smiles would likely not have been possible without dozens of professional staff members, volunteers and a lasting partnership between Jewish LearningWorks and the Federation that is now entering its 15th year. It is a partnership that provides support, Jewish community, celebration and spirituality, and a few days of respite for families that so desperately need it.

Indeed, Herb, Geri and Jared embraced the Family Camp Weekend experience in its entirety, from making challah upon their arrival, to participating in a family friendly "no shush" Shabbat service, to a weekend full of outdoor fun and games. But, as Herb tells it, the most impactful experience of their stay occurred on day two – the talent show.

"It was just amazing. You could see the joy in the kids' faces and you could hear it in their voices. And it didn’t matter if it was just a few words spoken or a few notes played, because these children who had probably never received a lot of adulation or praise were appreciated and celebrated for their contribution."

One child in particular left an enduring impression: a 14 year-old poet, who most people "knew" to be non-verbal. "For 14 years, virtually no one outside his family knew that he understood what was going on. And, for him to be able to type out that he was aware, that he did know what was going on and to say: 'Here are my thoughts' in a haiku that was of the highest caliber – with such love and spirituality – was just amazing. And unforgettable." 

There is an irony to Herb’s story. Prior to his son’s diagnosis, he founded "Herb Thomas and Associates," one of the largest fiduciary firms in northern California specializing in families with special needs. "So I’m usually the one who serves as the caregiver and the helper. But when we got to Family Camp Weekend, I got to be helped. And it simply meant the world to me. And one thing I can promise you: we’ll be back next year."

Jared, Herb and Geri

Leading the effort to address unmet community needs: The Special Needs Family Camp Weekend program is part of the Federation’s strategy, in partnership with Jewish LearningWorks, to build an inclusive Jewish community by expanding the capacity of Jewish organizations to welcome and include more than 9,000 Bay Area Jewish children with special needs and their families.

In addition to funding the program, the Federation provides families with need-based scholarships. If you’d like more information on scholarships and financial assistance to attend next year’s Special Needs Family Camp Weekend, please contact Lisa Pavlovsky, Scholarship Program Manager at 415.512.6217 or For more information about the Federation and Jewish LearningWorks partnership in welcoming and including children with special needs and their families, please contact Julie Golde, Director of Grants, at 415.512.6435 or


June 10, 2015


Jon Moskin