November 13, 2013
Aryeh United special needs camp covers new ground
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.