This past summer, I was a volunteer counselor for the second year in a row at Camp Kulam, a two week day camp program at the JCC for kids with special needs ages 4-18. During my time at Kulam, I worked with the 8-12 year olds. At the time Camp Kulam rolled around this past summer, I had been volunteering at the JCC’s Center for special needs for over a year, both in their camp and their year round programs.I had gotten to know many of the teens in the program, so when I found out that I was not placed with them this past summer, I was honestly slightly disappointed. I had developed a strong bond with these kids over the past year, and I was looking forward to spending more time with them over the summer. I had to remind myself that I was not here for me, I was here for the participants in this program, and that any campers were wonderful campers.
Some children were fairly high functioning, able to talk and play all day, and have conversations on a level that is similar to those of a typically developing child. While other children were completely non-verbal, and relied solely on hand gestures and incoherent noises as their form of communication. This past summer, I was working with more non verbal kids than I ever had in the past, which truly put my communication skills to the test. This challenge, while admittedly frustrating at times, also bettered my understanding of autism, and forced me to become a better communicator and counselor. I developed a particularly close connection with one of my campers, Harry, who was very low functioning, which led to my placement in his class in my work at the JCC over the academic year.
What started out as an on a whim agreement to volunteer for two weeks during the summer of 2014 turned into a much longer commitment, and ultimately led me to strongly considering going into special education in the future. I highly encourage anybody interested in children and education to consider branching out from the typically developing world, and into a special education program. The incredible connections and genuine compassion of the kids I work with has greatly outweighed any frustrations and challenges I’ve faced, and I know, come June, I’ll be very sad to have to leave.
Over the summer, I was a volunteer counselor at Camp Kulam. Camp Kulam is a two week day camp program at the JCC for kids with special needs ages 4-18. During my time at Kulam, I worked with the 8-12 year olds, and the 12-18 year olds. Prior to this experience, I had never worked with children with special needs, and I was quite nervous about the idea of working with kids who I (at the time) categorized as “different” than the children I had come accustomed to working with, through babysitting, and other child-related programs. The kids in the program all had some form of autism, but they differed greatly in their levels of functionality. Some kids were able to talk and play all day, and have conversations on a level that is similar to those of a typically developing child. While other children were completely non-verbal, and relied solely on hand gestures and incoherent noises as their form of communication. Whatever their level of functionality, each and every one of these kids added something unique and interesting to our group dynamic. While working at Kulam came with its fair share of challenges, especially in regards to communication with kids who have a hard time expressing their feelings, the experience that I had was overwhelmingly positive, which has led me to be an active participant in the JCC’s youth special needs programing throughout the year. I am so lucky to have been introduced to these amazing kids over the summer, some of whom I still see on a weekly basis through a similar program that I’m a part of. I had assumed that working with kids with special needs would be an interesting summer experience, but I can now say that the two weeks I spent as a counselor have persuaded me to continue working with kids with special needs throughout this year, and the years to come.
Kids Helping Kids is an activity at Friends in which high school students visit the crisis nursery at the Foundling Hospital. The foundling nursery is a place for young children to go for temporary housing when they have no other options. Often times these children have parents who are in the hospital or jail, and they have no other relatives or close friends to take care of them. A few of my friends and I made weekly trips to the crisis nursery to play and interact with these kids. Before my first visit, I was expecting to meet disturbed children who come from such terrible backgrounds, that they could not possibly act similarly to the young children I know. The first time I walked into the nursery room, I was greeted by smiles and waves from the three children, all of them playing with cars and trucks as any “normal” kid would. I started to play with them and quickly found that although these children come from families that are struggling, that does not make them any less capable of being loving, caring, interesting, smart, and overall amazing human beings. The fact that they have had a somewhat unconventional upbringing doesn’t make them so different from the rest of us. During one of my visits, I was spending some time with a five year old boy named Omar. He was the first kid to ever talk to me about why he was at the crisis nursery. He was telling me all about his mom, and how he was drawing of these pictures for her that showed everything he and his brother Miguel were doing, and that she would see them all when she gets out of the hospital. Omar was brought up surrounded by love, and he himself has so much love to spread throughout the rest of the world. The experience of meeting and talking to these kids has allowed to grow, and learn that it’s not okay for me to hear the terms “struggling families” and “no place to go,” and automatically assume that those people are so different from me. I went in thinking that I was going to be “helping and teaching” these kids because they were so “troubled” but after my visits, it felt as though I was always the one who learned something.