J Camp launches groundbreaking inclusive initiative

Last week’s pool opening was not the only reason for an increase in activity here at The J. This week also marked the start of specialty summer camps for tennis, chess, and fencing — all just precursors to the influx of kids you’ll see when the full-blown J Camp opens its doors Monday morning.

As excited as the staff is to see this summer’s new and returning campers, they’re especially thrilled to welcome 10 children who wouldn’t typically get to attend J Camp. Although a few campers with special needs have attended over the past few seasons (including a more concerted grant-funded effort a few years ago), this year’s much larger group is part of The J’s ongoing efforts to increase inclusivity throughout its programs. This new initiative is part of a collaboration with United Ability that will expand in scope over the coming months and years.

An outdoor A-frame sign reads "We're so glad you're here!" as J Campers sit in the background.
“This initiative is just one more way that we’re demonstrating the Jewish value of kehillah or creating community,” says Executive Director Brooke Bowles. “It’s good for all of us.”

“This really is a groundbreaking initiative,” says Executive Director Brooke Bowles. “While you might find a few summer camps for children with special needs that incorporate some typical children, it’s rare to find a camp for typical children that intentionally seeks out children with special needs.  

“We’re confident that this effort will enhance the experience for all our campers,” Brooke adds.

Besides specific training for camp counselors, the program has included close collaboration with families and accommodations built into the curriculum. Family-provided aides will help the campers who need that level of support.

Thriving in routine

Jesse Unkenholz is the father of Ellis, a 6-year-old with “global developmental delays.” She’s one of the 10 new J Campers. “We’re so excited that The J is starting this program,” he says. “Ellis just finished a year of kindergarten. Being able to continue a routine with large groups of typically abled peers plus other children with disabilities is the ideal situation for her summer.” 

Jesse explains that being with the general population of peers most of the day is best for Ellis both in terms of filling her days and on her developmental journey. “She thrives in environments with regular routines and enough sensory inputs to fill her daily sensory appetite.”

The J is also currently raising money for a new permanent sensory room that will be equipped with specially textured toys, noise-canceling headphones, and special pods that can help users take a break from aural and visual stimulation. The room and its equipment will be available to any LJCC member of any age who might benefit from it.

“It’s great that The J is working on this,” says Jesse. While Elle generally does well in “the chaos” of a school or camp environment, he explains, having a calm place for her and other kids to go is a great resource for children who need it. 

“We strive to be a very open and welcoming community center,” says Brooke. “This initiative is just one more way that we’re demonstrating the Jewish value of kehillah or creating community. It’s good for all of us.”

Read a related story about a Kiwanis grant that supports this initiative.