JUNE 29, 2017 – MARBLEHEAD – When Marty Schneer arrived in Marblehead in 2013 to take over as executive director of the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore, one of the first people he met was Marcy Yellin. Her son, Jacob, now 32, has special needs and worked at the JCC.
She told Schneer that the community lacked an inclusion summer camp. He asked her what she would like to see. Within months, Schneer formed a committee with Yellin and a few others, including special education teacher Melissa Caplan. By the following summer, the JCCNS Inclusion Camp was up and running, with 20 campers and Caplan as director.
This year, the Inclusion Camp has 40 campers, a staff of 25, and a long waiting list. The staff works with children to integrate them into Kindercamp, Simchah Classic camps, and the Simchah counselor-in-training program.
There are no criteria for admission. “We take inclusion pretty seriously, so how could we make criteria that excludes some?” Caplan said. The only reason a camper might not be accepted is if he or she already tried camp and the staff determines it is unable to keep that child or their peers safe.
Special needs campers participate in the same activities as their chronological peers, including aquatics and sports.
“The goal of the camp is not only to provide services to a population who until now was not included, but also to break down the boundaries that often exist when people are not exposed to differences at an early age,” Caplan said.
Campers range in age from 2.9 months to teenagers. Staff includes teens and young adults who themselves have disabilities, filling an additional community need.
“These individuals come to work and receive a paycheck just like their non-disabled peers,” Caplan said.
Inclusion campers and staff cope with a variety of disabilities that include developmental delays, intellectual impairments, autism, cerebral palsy, blindness, social/emotional disabilities, muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome, seizure disorder, and more.
Most require one-on-one aides, which is expensive and paid for partially through private donations and fund-raising. “We pride ourselves that the cost to attend camp is the same for all, whether you need a one-on-one aide or not,” Schneer said. “The underlying philosophical approach is that this is good for the entire community of campers.”
“Marty believes in the need to support a neurodiverse population, even though it costs the JCCNS a great deal,” Caplan added.
The term “neurodiverse” means the natural variation in human cognition. It embodies the idea that those who are atypical can live their lives with accommodations and modifications, instead of being forced to conform to “normal.”
Caplan’s educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in multiple disabilities and a master’s degree in early intervention. She has worked in Roxbury, Newton, and Marblehead and currently teaches special education at the Clarke Elementary School in Swampscott.
“I believe wholeheartedly in the spirit of inclusion. It is a passion of mine,” she said.
During the rest of the year, the JCCNS runs adaptive/inclusion programs that include basketball and lacrosse clinics, a Sunday family drumming circle, and an individual educational support clinic for families. The program also has adaptive swim and gym programs.
Next year, Caplan would like to expand the sports clinics and start a lacrosse league and a Special Olympics swim team. “We have tons of great ideas and committed staff and eager participants. The only setback is funding,” she said.
In the meantime, Yellin sees the fruits of her vision every Friday as she walks down the hill to the JCCNS, where she plays guitar.
“I see wheelchairs amongst kids playing and all kinds of people in one space,” she said. “It’s a beautiful sight.”