Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Impact of Working with Special Children on Staff members.

Lilli Flink, a staff member in the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, recently shared this essay with me.  It is part of her application to graduate studies.  It captures the impact that working in a special needs program such as Tikvah has on a staff member as well as the importance of such a program.  The Jewish community needs to hear the words of Lilli and understand that it must DO MORE for members of the special needs community and their parents and loved ones.  It also demonstrates that working in these programs leads people to make them lifelong commitments.  Thanks Lilli for sharing this.  If you wish to share it, please forward in its entirety and please credit Lilli Flink for the work.

     I have had the best summer job in the world. No, it’s not because of the money, the benefits, or the title—those are far from prestigious. It’s for the community, the challenges, the support, the final feeling of immense reward, and much more. For the past three summers, I have been a camp counselor in the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. Tikvah is a specifically designed program for adolescents with Asperger’s Disorder, ADHD, and high-functioning Autism. Working as a counselor in the Tikvah program has been extremely rewarding and challenging for many reasons. For two months straight, I eat, sleep, and breathe special needs kids. My job tests my patience, but also makes me laugh harder than anything else. My campers struggle with behavioral and social disorders that inhibit them on a day-to-day basis, on both the individual and interpersonal levels. At camp, the Tikvah staff works to create a supportive, warm environment for our campers to succeed, cultivate positive relationships, and work towards individualized goals. These kids are infinitely more than what they look like on paper or at first glance. They are extremely talented; some are geniuses, some trivia fiends, and others amazing artists and singers. As a part of the Tikvah program, my campers are not defined by what they cannot do, but by what camp empowers them to accomplish and brings out in them.

           Along with the numerous responsibilities I have for my campers are the everyday joys associated with their personalities. The comic relief in the campers’ unconventional ambitions often remedies the everyday stresses of my job. One of my most recent campers can be summed up in two words: ‘teddy bear’. Avi is tall, with curly light brown hair, and is shy at first. Once he trusts you and feels comfortable he assumes his happy demeanor and
talks incessantly. Every day I was greeted by Avi’s refreshing delight in life, a soft handshake,  and his cheerful catchphrase, “boy, aren’t I looking sharp today?” Memorable moments like this made my summers worthwhile.

           Over these summers, I have learned a tremendous amount from my supervisors, colleagues, and campers. Being a Tikvah counselor is intensely gratifying, as it refocuses my intentions and priorities and puts life into perspective. Many campers struggle to form and maintain social connections at home. That is why we, the staff, essentially create a family and a community for our campers—so that they can have positive mentors and learn basic life skills such as healthy eating habits, living actively, job techniques, and how to lose gracefully. Through living at camp, they learn appropriate social skills and develop meaningful friendships—abilities they may not otherwise ever acquire.

           As a Tikvah counselor, I have gained a deeper understanding of the social boundaries and challenges confronting my campers as they relate to their peers. Through this process, I have also become more acutely aware of my own social boundaries and interactions. Because I consistently reminded my campers of basic social skills and cues, I was forced to be a constant role model for them through my own behavior and actions. I also gained insight every summer into new approaches towards our campers and programs due to the innovative, hard-working staff. Because the nature of our program demands creative and dynamic activities, our staff learned to operate as a cohesive group—one that communicated well, organized and prepared, and, most importantly, learned to be flexible. Not only have I grown as an individual by being around my campers and teaching by example, but I have also learned a great deal from the talented staff with whom I have worked and planned. Above all, by developing skills as a Tikvah counselor, my passion for special needs has deepened.

           This job has simultaneously tested my patience and forced me to re-imagine the hidden and oft-overlooked potential of adolescents with special needs. By leaving my comfort zone to create a magically positive and influential atmosphere like the one at camp, I have seen Tikvah campers create friendships with typical adolescents that outlast the eight weeks of camp. It is truly a highlight to watch these bonds develop and enable our campers to take advantage of the opportunities that Ramah offers.

           My campers have taught me more than I will ever teach them. They have enabled to me to overcome some of my inhibitions, take risks, and find laughter in the hardest moments. These three summers have also helped me develop a passion for programs like Tikvah—ones that enable teens with special needs to achieve what other teens do naturally. While I am uncertain of what area of medicine I will ultimately pursue, I can see myself devoting my professional career to helping kids like Avi and my former campers, and it’s all thanks to my first summer job.

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