Seeing beyond disability

Kelly and Hannah image
Kelly and Hannah.

This article was previously published on JCC Camp Chi’s Winkle’s Blog as part of a four-part series in honor of Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month.

If you know my camper, Kelly, you would agree that she is funny, creative, spunky, an awesome dancer, and a great friend. These are just a few characteristics that would come to mind if her cabinmates, counselors, and I, her one-on-one counselor, were asked to describe her wonderful personality.

Kelly has been my camper at Camp Chi for the past two summers. She loves horseback riding, dancing, and swimming in the pool with her friends. Like all campers, she has made long lasting friendships over the past four years and looks forward to returning to camp each summer.

Kelly has special needs, and she is able to enjoy the overnight camp experience thanks to Camp Chi’s partnership with Keshet, an organization that provides educational, recreational, and vocational programs for individuals with special needs. While Kelly benefits greatly from spending four weeks in the camp environment, it is her typically developing peers who I believe gain the most from building a friendship with her.

Living with a girl who has Down Syndrome has given many young campers an opportunity to see Kelly – and other individuals with special needs – beyond their disabilities. These experiences have promoted the idea that a person with special needs is more than just what their disability entails. Campers are able to realize that Kelly is more than just a girl who has Down Syndrome, and they learn to see her for her unique and lively personality.

From sharing meals, going to specialties, and even on late-night adventures, the campers in Kelly’s cabin have developed so many positive values that will hold true throughout the rest of their lives. Kelly’s genuine friendships with her cabinmates are proof of the maturity and growth that these middle school girls are capable of.

After working with Keshet and Camp Chi, I’ve been able to witness all the benefits that an overnight camp can bring to individuals with special needs. I’ve had the privilege to watch Kelly become more and more independent over the years, and I know that coming to camp has helped her gain so many new skills.

I am so proud to work with these two organizations that give the incredible opportunity of attending a Jewish overnight camp to children with and without disabilities. I know this experience is so meaningful to all Camp Chi campers and is something that makes our summer camp truly special. I look forward to watching Kelly and other Keshet campers keep the Chi flame burning for many years to come.

Hannah Weiland is a sophomore at the University of Illinois majoring in Special Education. When she’s not busy with class, she also serves on the executive board of Sigma Delta Tau. Hannah has spent 10 summers at Camp Chi, and is a proud member of the summer staff of Camp Chi and Keshet.

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