Making Camp Accessible for All Families

The JCCSF's Youth Inclusion Initiative supports campers with disabilities

This past June, we launched our Youth Inclusion Initiative pilot program at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (JCCSF). This program supports campers with a wide variety of disabilities and needs. Most of the paraprofessionals work one-on-one with children who would otherwise be excluded from attending camp. These children require a dedicated staff member to ensure their needs are met throughout the camp week and across a variety of settings, both in and out of the JCCSF building. With generous seed-funding from the Federation, JCCSF is able to provide this help to campers’ families at no additional cost. There are 40 spaces available for campers who require one-on-one interaction with a paraprofessional this summer. Currently, 33 of these spaces are filled, and more families are contacting the JCCSF each week inquiring about how this program might benefit their child.

Parents have expressed their deep gratitude for finally having an option for their child to engage in leisure activities with peers. Through the intake process, we discovered that many of these children have never attended a summer camp before – a proven means of building Jewish identity, community, and leadership.

The paraprofessionals in camp provide individualized support and participation-enabling modifications for campers. For example, one camper needed to take frequent movement breaks in order to be able to sit with his group for organized activities. With the paraprofessional, the camper is able to step out of the camp activity room to take a walk, run the stairs, or use the trampoline. This allows the counselors to remain with and provide a quality program for the other campers and help ensure all campers’ needs are met.

Photo courtesy of JCCSF

The second major impact of this program has been to support campers who do not require a paraprofessional to participate in camp, but who do need some accommodation or support to have a successful camp experience. Campers are identified by the Youth Inclusion Coordinator during the week, as counselors observe campers who are struggling. By having a dedicated Inclusion Coordinator, the JCCSF has reached out to the families of struggling campers and developed support plans to make it possible for every child to have a positive camp experience. Some of the families have shared how thankful they are for this outreach, having been asked to leave other camps because their child was deemed “too difficult” or their behavior was “too challenging.” JCCSF is dedicated to making camp work for all families and campers, and we are fortunate to be a part of a community that understands the value of providing a fun, meaningful summer experience for every child.

Photo courtesy of JCCSF

Often, the accommodations and support provided are simple things. One camper who was having a difficult time concentrating in Chess Camp was provided with a wiggle seat and a weighted lap pad. Within the same day, this camper went from unfocused and not enjoying camp, to being fully engaged in the activities, self-advocating when he needed to use the lap pad, and smiling for the remainder of the day. Another camper in Culinary Camp was having a hard time staying with the group. He was leaving the camp room and not participating in any of the cooking activities nor engaging with the other campers. The Inclusion Coordinator reached out to the family and discovered that noise and echoes are often overwhelming to this child. We provided him with noise-cancelling headphones. Within minutes the camper visibly relaxed and jumped into learning how to make challah. Before the dough had even risen this child was engaging with his peers and participating in the group’s activities.

As a result of this program, valuable tools have been discovered that can make a real difference in the experience of our special needs campers. The ideas and experience of the Inclusion Coordinator have resulted in a diverse array of physical aids (wiggle seats, lap pads, head phones) being implemented. It is JCCSF's commitment to every child to have the ability to attend and enjoy camp. We thank the generous funders – including the Federation – who have made all of this possible.


July 19, 2017


April Swenson