A new Orthodox special needs travel camp that grew from the ashes of the World Trade Center debuted this year, forging strong bonds between the campers, mentors and counselors.
The camp, Aryeh United, partly sponsored by Camp Lavi and headed by Yoni Glatt, aims to promote interaction and integration between Jewish teenage mentors and high functioning special-needs individuals throughout the course of a fully programmed ten-day trip. I was given the opportunity to be a counselor on this trip and I witnessed firsthand the wonderful effect that this trip had on both the campers and staff.
The idea for this teen-tour camp germinated originally between Yoni and his uncle Ari, who died in the World Trade Center in 2001. Twelve years later, the idea, named in his uncle’s memory, has come to fruition.
The 22 campers, 13 special needs campers with disabilities ranging from Asperger’s to mild mental retardation, and nine mainstreamed mentors, flew with the seven volunteer mentors for the first leg of the trip.
The first few days of the program were spent in Tennessee for a hike in Smokey Mountains National Park, whitewater rafting, a magic show, horseback riding, tubing, and Zorb, a high-speed downhill ride in a giant orb. The next stop was Atlanta to Coca Cola World, the Georgia Aquarium, and Turner Field. The Jewish community in Savannah, Georgia hosted all of Aryeh United for Shabbat. The trip concluded with a visit to Orlando to a water park, the Orlando Mall, and two days at Universal Studios and Island of Adventure.
Although some campers were already acquainted, campers and staff came to know and respect each other over the ten days of the trip. Campers made sure to include each other in all activities. Mentors took the initiative to sit next to special needs campers on the bus and socialize with them. This was particularly significant since many of the campers have had difficult experiences with bullying and exclusion in the past.
The last night the group discussed experiences with bullying. Yoni explained to the campers that as bad as it felt to be bullied is how bad others feel when we bully them. Many of the mentors and the special needs campers confessed to being bullied, excluded, ostracized, and made fun of in some way, and how difficult it made their childhood. Aryeh United was designed to be a completely opposite experience. Some campers said they felt more comfortable on Aryeh United than on any other teen traveling program that they had been on in the past. The accepting attitude that permeated the trip made it so that even campers who have never been without their parents before were having fun.
At the end of the trip, after experiencing how challenging it could be to care for special needs children for only ten days, I got a particularly moving insight into the lives of the parents of some of these children. One mother was so overjoyed to hear what a great time her son had on the trip that she had trouble holding back tears. She said that her son had a difficult time making friends as a child. Now he was high-fiving, hugging, and saying goodbye to over twenty new friends.
It’s hard to decide whether the trip was a greater experience for the campers or for the staff. Special needs can be easy to ignore if it doesn’t immediately affect you. It only took ten days for the counselors to realize how much patience and effort it takes to parent a special needs child. We learned how difficult it can be for these children to grow up and are glad that we were able to give these great kids the trip of a lifetime and their parents a well deserved break. I hope I can continue to be a part of this program in years to come and to keep making a difference in these truly unique children’s lives.