DECEMBER 20, 2018 – For years, Melissa Caplan has served as a role model to children in and out of the classroom. A special education teacher in the Marblehead schools, Melissa previously taught in Swampscott schools and at Congregation Shirat Hayam. During the summer, she leads the inclusion camp program at the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore. Melissa lives in Swampscott with her husband, Andrew, an attorney, and her daughters, Lila and Louisa.
Could you tell us about your upbringing, your family and where you grew up?
I grew up in Little Silver, N.J., a small town with a population of fewer than 6,000 people. I have one younger brother who now also lives in Swampscott. I was one of only three Jewish kids in my entire grade from K-12. My parents were involved in our synagogue when I was young – and my mother still is. My mom was active in Hadassah.
When did you first become interested in Judaism, and how did it influence you during your early years?
I attended Hebrew school through the 12th grade. My grandparents gave me the gift of a lifetime membership to Hadassah when I turned 10. I was bat-mitzvahed and also attended Zionist Hadassah camps – Camp Sprout Lake and Camp Tel Yehudah. In high school, I went to Israel on Hadracha, a summer program with Young Judaea. As a teen, I was very passionate about Young Judaea and started a small chapter in my synagogue. I attended N.J. regional conventions throughout the school years, and camp every summer. When I was in fourth grade, I had a favorite Hebrew school teacher who was studying to become a rabbi. He invited our class [of about nine] to spend the weekend with him at his apartment and Shabbat at the seminary. To this day, this remains a fond memory, and I am lucky enough to be in touch with him through Facebook. He is a grandfather now, but still has the Kermit the Frog puppet we gave him
and the letter I wrote to him in fifth grade.
Your husband, Andy, an attorney, is a native of Swampscott. How did you meet?
Andy and I met in 1996 at an Anti-Defamation League event in Boston. We got married in 1999 in New Jersey, where I grew up and my folks still live. The next year we moved to Swampscott –where Andy grew up and his parents still reside.
I was so lucky to grow up in central Jersey in a beautiful small town along the Jersey Shore. I knew I needed to live by the beach and raise my own children by the seashore – luckily so did Andy.
You work as a teacher. Can you tell us where you’ve worked, and what you teach now?
I went to Ohio University where I got a bachelor’s degree in special education in what was then called multiple handicaps. I moved to Boston in 1992 and graduated from Wheelock College with a master of education degree in early intervention. After graduation, I worked in the Mission Hill Projects – a job I adored – with infants and toddlers and their families at risk who were actively involved with the Department of Social Services. After working there for a few years, I took the director of early childhood position at the Leventhal-Sidman JCC [in Newton]. I met Andy while I was working at the LSJCC, living in Brighton, and active in young adult Jewish groups.
When I had children, we joined Congregation Shirat Hayam. I became an active volunteer in young family programming. I took a job in their preschool, and then added working in their Hebrew school. I taught there six days a week for seven years before returning to special education. I recently worked for 4½ years at the Clarke School in Swampscott teaching a substantially separate special education classroom, until this fall when I returned to Marblehead to work in special ed at the Glover School.
You lead the inclusion program at the JCC camp. How important is it to the community and children to have this kind of camp program?
Six years ago, Marcy Yellin approached me about starting an inclusive summer program at the JCCNS. Marcy and Marty Schneer, the JCC’s executive director, were instrumental in starting a fully inclusive day camp. I am passionate about inclusion, and wholeheartedly believe it benefits everyone. When I took the job, the goal was to begin the first summer with six campers with mild needs. This quickly changed, as I found it difficult not to welcome everyone – and word of our program spread. This past summer, we had about 60 campers and staff, all with a diagnosis that warranted significant support. We employed almost 30 staff to help us meet the unique needs of campers coping with a variety of abilities and disabilities. Parents of children with special needs have limited recreational opportunities for their children – especially difficult is finding programs close to home, or one that allows their children to go to the same camp as their siblings and school friends. I think the dramatic and continual growth in the number of camp participants exemplifies the importance of this camp model.
In addition to camp, I have run a number of inclusive programs during the school year at the JCCNS. They include swim parties, drumming circles, art groups, and lacrosse and basketball, to name a few. I was also helpful in building a relationship between the JCC and Special Olympics, helping to start a Special Olympics swim team and a young athlete program for children with a diagnosis and their peers. I currently consult to the J by supporting their programs in accepting and meeting student needs in their preschool and after-school programs.
What do you love about teaching?
I always see the potential in a young child. I love teaching children about acceptance and friendship and humanity. I love watching children forge friendships despite their differences. I am honored to be able to support families as they go about the difficult task of raising children with unique needs and challenges. I love finding a way for a child to do something they could not do without modifications and accommodations. Whether that is using adaptive technology to speak, or needing a 1:1 staff person to assist a child in the pool. Two years ago, I was recognized by parents in Marblehead as an Unsung Hero in the field.
What motivates you to make a difference in other people’s lives?
I am most proud that I have raised two pretty remarkable young women. They are kind, empowered, generous, accepting, and noble – and all I really want is to teach/influence other little humans in the same way I did with my own children. My goal, in all that I do, is to provide meaningful opportunities for children and their families to come together despite their differences and to respect those differences in race, religion, ability, and neurodiversity. My motivation in everything I do [in my teaching, volunteer work, and work at the JCC] is to shape how young children perceive the inherent worth of themselves, and every human being around them, so they will grow into noble, kind, and generous human beings.
How do you hope your (inclusion) camp will evolve?
I am proud to be affiliated with the JCC and to be a founder of a truly inclusive program. As for evolving, I look forward to the day we don’t have to name a program inclusive – rather just call it Summer on the Hill or JAdventure. It should simply be understood that all are welcome. I suppose that is when we will have achieved true inclusion.