Special Needs & Special Opportunities: Lessons I Learned From Camp HASC
adjective: conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.
The people in Camp HASC are not “normal” in that they are anything but typical or usual. HASC campers include those in their 50’s and 60’s, wheelchair-bound, individuals with feeding tubes, and with every imaginable special need including intellectual and physical disabilities. The needs are so great that it takes over 500 staff members to care for 350 campers.
In HASC, “normal” is redefined. It is “normal” during meals for campers to start screaming spontaneously or pacing frantically. It is “normal” during davening for campers to be laying on the floor, hitting themselves or thinking they are the Chazzan. It is “normal” in Camp HASC for adults to require being changed, showered, and diapered.
My family and I had the great privilege of spending this past Shabbos at camp and after seeing firsthand this magical place, I can report that they are not just special needs children, they are just truly special children. They may have disabilities, but in their purity, innocence, and sweetness they are more functional than many fully-abled people. The holy neshamos of the campers of HASC lack inhibition and hang-ups, and they don’t sit in judgment of those around them. Many can’t communicate traditionally, but with a smile, a nod, a brush of the cheek or just a meaningful look, their inner goodness shines through.
HASC officially stands for The Hebrew Academy for Special Children, but unofficially, the acronym clearly stands for something else as well. HASC is The Hebrew Academy for Special Counselors.
The campers are not the only ones at HASC that are not “normal” and that are “special.” One cannot witness the love, attention and affection of the extraordinary staff and not be moved to tears by their selflessness.
In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks describes ours as “The Age of the Selfie.” He writes:
People have become less empathetic – or at least they display less empathy in how they describe themselves. A University of Michigan study found that today’s college students score 40 percent lower than their predecessors in the 1970s in their ability to understand what another person is feeling. The biggest drop came in the years after 2000.
Public language has also become demoralized. Google algorithms measure word usage across media. Google scans the contents of books and publications going back decades. You can type in a word and see, over the years, which words have been used more frequently and which less frequently. Over the past few decades there has been a sharp rise in the usage of individualist words and phrases like “self” and “personalized,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself,” and a sharp decline in community words like “community,” “share,” “united,” and “common good.” The use of words having to do with economics and business has increased, while the language of morality and character building is in decline. Usage of words like “character,” “conscience,” and “virtue” all declined over the course of the twentieth century. Usage of the word “bravery” has declined by 66 percent over the course of the twentieth century. “Gratitude” is down 49 percent. “Humbleness” is down 52 percent and “kindness” is down 56 percent.
Numerous articles discuss the narcissism and self-centeredness of the millennial generation (commonly referring to adults born between 1980 and 1994). How will leaders capable of mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice, emerge from a mostly privileged generation of individuals consumed with posting selfies and personal status updates?
Observing what is happening around us and reading the results of studies and analysis, it is easy to be judgmental about the next generation and pessimistic about our collective future.
But that would be a terrible mistake. Our future is very bright and if you doubt it, spend five minutes at Camp HASC or one of the numerous other programs and camps that serve our children and adults with special needs.
The amazing staff who work there are by all measures “normal.” They also take selfies and update their statuses. But in between they are engaged in truly “abnormal” acts of selflessness and giving. From feeding, administering medications, and pushing people in wheelchairs to changing adult diapers, showering, and shadowing, the staff shows incredible attention and care for each and every camper.
One would think this exhausted group of young people would look tired, depleted, or even sad and depressed by their work. Instead, their selflessness yields the greatest satisfaction, deepest fulfillment, and most genuine happiness. Not only does the staff care physically for the campers, but all of their giving and nurturing results in a true love for them.
Visit camp HASC and you see young men and women spontaneously displaying hugs, kisses and affection to campers they only met a short time ago but have come to love as their children. For seven weeks, because of the generosity and kindness of these staffers, parents of 350 extremely challenging children get a reprieve and relief and can only do so knowing that in their place are 500 special, not “normal” people who will love and care for their children as if they were their own.
As much as the staff gives, they get more in return. One young man described to me that he was concerned about his ability to work with this population and their needs. In the first few days of camp he hesitated and was repulsed by some things he needed to do. But it didn’t take long for him to develop a love and concern for another person and the same tasks that once made him gag are second nature because they are for someone he cares deeply about.
Another amazing counselor told me that before working at HASC he was very impatient. He would always walk briskly wherever he was going. His camper is someone who shuffles along incredibly slowly. It takes him fifteen minutes to walk to a destination that should take two. At first, the counselor would get antsy and anxious each time they had to go somewhere, but after a few weeks, he learned to be patient and forbearing. He has become a more easygoing person and for that and so much more, he is so grateful to his camper.
Not everyone is cut out for working in a place like HASC. Those fortunate enough to spend a summer there are blessed to come close with some holy neshamos and develop relationships with some truly special people. HASC alumni are among the most selfless community leaders everywhere and undoubtedly, the experiences they gain there contribute to learning the skills necessary to be a devoted and giving spouse, parent and friend.
While we can’t all work there, like many of their staff, we can and should leave our comfort zones and dig deep. We will find a capacity for kindness and love beyond what we ever imagined.
There are families with special needs in all of our communities who need support, relief, and love. We can provide it ourselves, and we should teach our children to do what they can. In our community, I know of several teenagers who go each Shabbos morning to watch children with special needs so their parents can go to Shul or get some rest.
In Parshas Mishpatim the Torah says: “Kol almanah v’yasom lo s’anun, you shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan.” The Chizkuni points out that all of the other mitzvos in that parsha are written in the singular. The obligation to show kindness and sensitivity to the widow and orphan are an exception. Explains the Chizkuni, this mitzvah is written in the plural, for the rabim. The community is measured by the standard it sets and the environment it tolerates when it comes to being sensitive to those who aren’t typical.
Rav Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg, author of the Ksav V’Kabbalah, points out that the Torah doesn’t limit this mitzvah to the orphan and/or widow. The almanah and yasom are simply symbolic of those that are missing something, those that don’t quite fit the mold and therefore may feel isolated, alone or unnoticed. He explains that the world almanah comes from almanah, lacking a portion. In every community there are people that don’t fit the mold; they are al-mana, missing something. As a community, we are judged and measured by our sensitivity, kindness, awareness and inclusiveness of such people and their families.
Last year, Lincoln Square Synagogue, led by my friend Rabbi Shaul Robinson, introduced a fabulous new component to their Purim Carnival. It featured an early start time for children with sensory needs and other disabilities that may prevent full participation in the stimulating carnival atmosphere. A quiet sensory room was made available throughout the carnival for those children who could be overstimulated and needed some quiet regrouping time.
We all need to look at our programming, events, and membership services with an eye on how we can be the most inclusive and sensitive to the populations that often feel the most neglected and left out. Inspired by Lincoln Square, this year we hope to introduce youth programming especially designed for those with special needs and to make our regular programming more accessible and inclusive. For example, this Simchas Torah we will host a special Kol HaNe’arim for the children who cannot participate in the regular one. If you have other ideas and suggestions, please don’t hesitate to share them with us.
In HASC normal and not normal are relative terms. Our communities cannot provide year-round what HASC does for seven weeks. But, we can be more special in the way we relate to and provide for our special children. Doing so won’t just help those with special needs, it will help us and the next generation have a bright future ahead.