Monday, August 18, 2014

Another kind of holy land

Last Wednesday, I headed to family camp with Max for five days. I figured we'd have fun; I had no idea how meaningful our time there would be. It was full of firsts for Max—and the discovery of a whole other kind of holy land.

As a a teen, I was a counselor at two Camp Ramahs in New York and loved it. After I found out that the Ramah in the Poconos had a five-day Tikvah Family Camp for kids with developmental disorders and social learning disorders, I signed us up. (The Ramah Tikvah Network offers family, day and overnight camps at nine locations.) The plan was Max and I would go on Wednesday and Sabrina and Dave would join us on Friday, after she returned from camp, only she liked being home too much to leave again so soon. So Tikvah Mommy and Fireman Max Camp it was.

We arrived just in time for the afternoon petting zoo. Max was into the cow, but was completely enchanted by the goat who pooped pellets in front of him. As the zoo was about to close, Max decided that he wanted a horse ride, and two staffers helped him up.

Fireman Max and his firehorse
All of the staffers were warm and welcoming to everyone in the fifteen families who attended, especially wannabe firefighters. Max got an assigned buddy, Shana, a super-friendly counselor who hung out with him at activities. Our dedicated waiter regularly hooked Max up with assorted pasta dishes. Meanwhile, we had a spacious cabin all to ourselves, impeccably decorated with plaques from bunks past and wads of dried toilet paper stuck to the wood cathedral ceiling. Camp!

A rare photo of Max without the fireman hat. Signed prints available for $5,000,
make checks payable to Fireman Max.
The grounds are hill-y, as camp grounds tend to be, and at first I thought Max would need golf cart rides to get around. He did well walking on his own, but he has a thing for golf carts so he tried to score as many rides as possible. During our first hour there, he slammed his foot on the gas pedal as a counselor had his foot on it and drove the cart right into our cabin's porch. But the broken railing was fixed within minutes, and they allowed Max back on the carts the back seat.

Every morning, there were separate activities for kids with special needs, their siblings and parents, then family stuff in the afternoon. Max did arts and crafts, cooking, music, dancing, story time and swimming. One of his favorite activities: Walking up to the mic when announcements were made after mealtime and telling the crowd, "I want to be a fireman when I grow up!"

Meanwhile, the siblings of kids with special needs did their own activities, which included discussions about what it's like to have a sibling with disabilities. Parents had their own kind of fun; we could take our pick from Zumba, basketball, tennis, boating, archery. I joined Dina of the lovely Commonplace blog for two blogging/creative writing workshops, which also included the proper technique for throwing wads of wet t.p. onto ceilings. OK, not that. I took a bike ride down some back roads with beautiful scenery. I added a square to a group quilt:

Afternoon was family time; we could choose from tennis, volleyball, arts and crafts and swimming. I went boating with Max and Shana; my bad shoulder is still bad, so she did the rowing...until Fireman Max decided to take over.

It was the first time Max had ever rowed before, the first time he ever wanted to. One of the cool things about being Max being in a setting where he felt completely comfortable was that he was game to try new stuff, which included participating in kickball games. The biggest boating challenge: making sure his hat stayed on. 


After kids were tucked in, counselors came to the bunks to babysit so parents could head out for the night's activities. We did an Iron Chef Competition, a trivia game and karaoke; we rocked Borderline, Let's Give 'Em Something To Talk About and Dancing Queen.

While Max sat out Ooey Gooey Stickiness (kids could paint, make Silly Putty, play with shaving cream and otherwise get completely messy), the campfire was a highlight, as befits a firefighter. Max arrived by making his fire engine siren noise, zooming through the crowd and up to the edge of the fire so he could douse it with his pretend hose. He also eagerly participated in the Saturday evening family talent show, with me and Shana; we sang Let It Go and Max did the chorus. The MC had asked people not to clap, at Max's request. So they held up their hands, wiggling their fingers to show their appreciation, and he took a big bow. Max didn't mind the applause he got on the last day at the Paper Plate Awards, however.

Shana gave him the award—wait for it—Most Likely To Be A Fireman When He Grows Up
So, lots of fun happened, the communal kind you have in camp. But there was also a spirituality to our time there. Although Max is not usually one to concentrate during prayers, he was really into the interactive kind they had. He got up and stood at the pulpit, participating in a reading of the Torah, after being called up as Fireman Max. He observed and listened. He offered musical accompaniment.

I had my own spiritual awakening when my iPhone died, and realized that for the sake of my inner peace I needed to unplug more often. We also celebrated the sabbath, a day of rest when you don't drive, turn on electricity or talk on the phone (although Max didn't get the memo about taking a nap). I sat with parents on porches and talked about raising our kids as they played on the grass.

Max made some incredible connections all his own, befriending other kids with special needs and reminding them when they said "Hi, Max!" that his correct name is "Fireman Max." (We have yet to make it legal.) Once, a boy picked up Max's bandana bib. "Don't grab!" his mom said. Only what he wanted to do was dab the drool.

In the evenings, the siblings hung out in a gazebo near the cabins we were in, and Max wanted to be with them. The first night, I sat there trying to be invisible as the kids dug up a time capsule buried beneath the deck and debated what to do with its contents. Max kept saying something until I finally translated: "He's saying 'police' and he wants to make sure you don't get into trouble!" The next evening, Max told me he wanted to be with them by himself. I watched him trek up the hill to sit with them in the twilight, the first time he'd ever hung with a group of kids on his own. I'm sure it felt so good to him. Me, I was thrilled. These are moments you dream of as a parent of a kid with special needs.

After that, Max sat at the siblings table at meals. I was there to help him eat, but again I was invisi-Mom. This was a unique group of kids, ones who didn't think twice about welcoming a kid with special needs because to them they're a natural part of their lives. They included Max in kickball games, too. "My friends!" Max said as we left the gazebo one night.

He really adored June ("Ooon!")
Max held this in his hand the entire car ride home
Max is a friendly kid, but this kind of socializing—the kind that happens naturally at camp, the kind that happens with siblings of kids with special needs—was a whole new experience for him. This is the what I long for Max to have in everyday life: People who get him. Kids who welcome him. An entire world that's welcoming to him. We found it at camp. Obviously it's a special setting, a holy land all its own. As is often the case, it's up to me and Dave to figure out a way to forge opportunities for Max the other 360 days a year in which he'll feel included by so-called typical kids. But Tikvah, which means "hope" in Hebrew, had given me plenty.

We both came home happy and rejuvenated, thankful for a good time...and more.

Rainbow photo: Dina Relles


  1. Aw, lovely. So glad you and Fireman Max had this experience.

  2. I would make a comment about Fireman Max's rowing skills, but the rainbow distracted me.

  3. reminds me a lot about what happens at camp korey, except family camp is in the spring

  4. Grin, grin, grin!
    I'm so glad you had such a great time!
    Colleen in NH

  5. This is absolutely fabulous - yes, what every parent wants. Love hearing how Max felt connected.


  6. This is an absolutely beautiful story about the power of camp for anyone! I am so glad that Max--I mean, Fireman Max-- got the opportunity to step out of his comfort zone, take some risks, meet some amazing friends, and make memories he will hold close forever. If at any point you feel like Max might be ready to try an inclusive camp, we at KIT specialize in training traditional camps to support kids with disabilities and provide the skills counselors need to facilitate wonderful life-long friendships. Either way, I think Max had SUCH an amazing time. And kudos to you for encouraging him to go somewhere new and try new activities! (And I loved the asides about the toilet paper on the ceilings--LOL!) Thanks for sharing, as usual!

  7. This is awesome, awesome, AWESOME! I am so glad you and Fireman Max got to have this time together to bond and grow. That photo of Max on the hill looks absolutely beautiful! What scenery!

  8. If this is of interest...join us at the Ramah Tikvah Shabbaton in was a fantastic experience last spring.

  9. OH YES! Exactly all that and double-ditto Elisa's comments above! Ms 18 was introduced to camp at age 9 by her support worker/BFF who was a counsellor. She had support for a year or two but after that she was just fine with counsellor support, like any other camp kid. Fast forward 9 years and we have gone to family camp as well 3 times, her brother Mr 16 is now a Counsellor this year, and many more years to come! Little sis Ms 9 is a camper.

    Ms. 18 did the Camp Leadership Program this year and next year will do Counsellor in Training, and will be a camp volunteer after that for as many years as she wants. She will never be a counsellor but will do a fine job as kitchen and dining help, program and activity help, cabin helper etc. AND SHE LOVES IT!!

  10. I'm kind of a fanatic for integration and against "special" programs just for disabled people. Yet, I have to admit that one of the most important experiences of my life was attending a summer camp for kids with disabilities. It was an eye-opening experience to see that every other kid there had a disability ... and a very wide variety of them. At the same time, it made me feel empowered, and also less special ... because I saw that I wasn't the only person in the world with disabilities. Also, it was just massively fun!

  11. That's what's so great about Tikvah Family Camp. It's for the whole family!

  12. I loved this, Ellen. And loved meeting you & spending time with you and Fireman Max. I'm so thrilled you both were able to experience the magic of camp--and this post captures your time there so beautifully. My favorite part was reading about how Max ventured off to hang out with the other kids on his own. I hadn't heard that before & I love thinking that camp gave him a place to feel more free and more connected all at once--definitely one of my favorite things about the place :) I'm glad our paths crossed & I look forward to the next time!

  13. Enjoyed reading your beautiful (and comical) account of the Tikvah experience. Tikvah really IS a kind of home land for us. I love that! Thanks so much for all your advice. We loved meeting and spending time with you and Fireman Max. I'd hope to stay in touch and see you next year.

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  15. I'm glad you and fireman max had such a great time! It was wonderful to run into you both there!


Thanks for sharing!

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