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Creating Terrific Photo Opps, One Family at a Time

Creating Terrific Photo Opps, One Family at a Time

“I have a son with special needs. I would love to feel like there might be a place for him at Camp Harlam.” The words stood out to me on the page as if they were wrapped in neon lights.

The professional staff of URJ Camp Harlam was reviewing the results of the parents’ end-of-summer survey. Amongst hundreds of comments on the page, this one resonated deeply for me. As the camp’s inclusion coordinator, it is my job – and my privilege – to work with campers with disabilities, giving them the support and accommodations necessary to be successful at camp. But we need to find these campers, and hope they find us. Frankly, it’s the hardest part of my job.

And here was a Harlam family that had a potential camper for us!

I drove six hours to meet him. I wanted to do an in-person assessment, and connect with this family. I wanted them to know that as much as they wanted their son at camp, we wanted him there just as much. We feel it is our responsibility to create a community at Harlam that mirrors the make-up of the outside world – and to create space for children of all abilities to participate and thrive. It was especially important for us to make this family a true Harlam family – in which all three children could one day come to camp together.

When I arrived, the love and support among the family members was palpable. I quickly saw how a camp community could rally around this camper, supporting him much as his family does. I watched his brother and sister interact with him and speak about him and how much they wanted him to be at camp.

And then Dad spoke.

He told me that when you’re the parent of a child with disabilities, you become accustomed to being told “no” most of the time, and you expect to fight to ensure that your child’s basic needs are met. You are not used to getting an email like mine, which asked if I could explore with them the possibility that their son might attend our camp. Dad said that when he got that email, he nearly fell out of his chair.

I explained that we at Harlam are driven to do what is right – not because it makes us feel good, but because it makes all of us better people. It makes our community more whole and more complete, and gives more kids the opportunity to experience and grow up loving camp.

Then dad, with tears in his eyes, said he could clearly see in his mind the photo he would take of all three of his children in front of the bunk on the first day of camp. 

And with tears in my eyes, I said that it was our privilege to make that photo possible.

Interested in sending your child to jewish summer camp? Find a regional or specialty summer camp at urjyouth.org/camps.

Lori Zlotoff, LCSW, is the inclusion coordinator at URJ Camp Harlam, an inclusive camp that is part of the FJC Ruderman/Alexander Inclusion Initiative. She and her family are members of The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, NY, where she is the executive producer of The Community Synagogue Theater Company. She also has a private practice in Great Neck, NY.

Lori Zlotoff
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