Capital Camps: Living the Values of Inclusion


From its inception, Capital Camps has elevated the concept of ‘camp for all’. Capital Camps welcomes campers of all backgrounds, denominational affiliation, gender, race, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status, including those with a range of intellectual, emotional, and physical abilities. We spoke with Camp Director, Lisa Handelman and Inclusion Coordinator, Hannah Stoller about the camp’s inclusion programs, what the programs mean to families, and what lies ahead.

What does it mean to Capital Camps to be inclusive to people with disabilities?

Lisa Handelman: Being inclusive to people with disabilities is a reflection of the Jewish values that guide Capital Camps and Retreat Center. Our Atzma’im (inclusion) program captures the Jewish teaching that all people are created b’tselem Elohim (in the image of God). Atzma’im provides a way for campers with disabilities to be full participants in the camp community. At the same time, this extends far beyond our relationship with campers with disabilities. Creating a welcoming and inclusive community begins with attitudinal changes. But attitudinal changes alone won’t create a culture of inclusion. We intentionally infuse this mindset into everything we do. All staff receives training and our Atzma’im counselors receive additional training, we match each camper with a counselor that we believe is best suited to meet an individual’s campers needs, we connect parents of former campers to parents of new campers, we partner with parents in setting up supports and communicate with parents throughout the summer. We live the values of inclusion in how we set up our community and how we guide and mentor our staff. Being an inclusive community is not something we do; it is who we are.

Hannah Stoller: It means recognizing that every single individual in our community has inherent and unique value. Not only do people with disabilities have the right to be a part of our Jewish community, but we actually improve as an entire community when we embrace each other’s differences and unique perspectives. I like to think that we are more than just inclusive—we actually cherish the opportunity to create an environment in which we learn how to support each other meaningfully. It’s not about doing a mitzvah (a good deed), it’s about doing what’s right and intentionally strengthening our community as a result.

Tell us about what it means to individuals with disabilities and their families when you create and maintain an inclusive environment for them?

Lisa: Parents send their children to Jewish overnight camps for a variety of reasons; Jewish identity building, connection to a strong Jewish community, a chance to grow, gain confidence, and a sense of independence. Parents who have children with disabilities want the same things for their children that all parents want. An inclusive and accommodating environment makes this possible. Unfortunately, there continues to be roadblocks to inclusion; both attitudinal and financial. Parents often share that they feel relief and gratitude when they find an inclusive camp environment. In addition, we are a co-ed community camp, and this makes it possible for siblings to attend camp together. For some families, this is the only time siblings are able to have this shared experience away from their parents since some campers attend different school programs and/or specialized sports or therapeutic activities after school. Siblings without disabilities have shared how meaningful it is for them to be able to share the camp experience with all their siblings. This past summer, like we do every summer, we connected new families with those whose children are returning for another summer. Hearing another parent explain to a new and often nervous parent how supportive and life-changing camp had been for not just the camper, but for the entire family, is especially meaningful.

Hannah: Having a disability or being related to someone with a disability often means constantly having to advocate to have their needs met in every environment. At camp, everyone from the director to the lifeguards to the counselors understand what inclusion means and know the expectation is that everyone has their needs met. It’s a big deal for families to be able to send their children to camp and relax knowing the It’s also a unique and huge opportunity for individuals with disabilities to be able to spend so much time away from home, developing life skills and independence. I think about a former camper who’s now living at a university full time and wonder how much more challenging that transition would’ve been for them if they didn’t already have the experience of being away from home during camp.

Tell us about a particular moment you and your colleagues are proud of in regard to inclusion in the past year? 

Lisa: Our community needed to reconnect last summer, and we are extremely proud that we were able to do so. The COVID protocols that we had to update constantly felt antithetical to a communal camp experience. Despite the additional challenges of running camp in the midst of a global pandemic, we did not have to limit our inclusion program. We were able to support campers with disabilities, including campers on the Autism spectrum, campers with physical disabilities, and medical and emotional needs.  I am most proud of the individual moments that remind us all about the added value inclusion brings to our community. For example, as one parent picked up their child, they turned to the Atzma’im counselor and said, “thank you, you changed my child’s life; he couldn’t have done this without you.” The young counselor was extremely touched by the comment and mentioned that he felt he had gained as much if not more than the camper had this summer.

We also saw growth in those who returned to camp for another summer. We hired a graduate of our inclusion program and he worked alongside, and received ongoing mentorship from, a staff member who graduated from our inclusion program several years ago. Seeing these two young men work side-by-side and the leadership skills from the more experienced staff member was a concrete example of the growth and independence we strive to create.

Hannah: I’m really proud of the fact that we went into this summer with a new inclusion team and had an extremely successful summer. I have been at camp many summers, first as a camper, then as an Atzma’im counselor, and now as the coordinator. My assistant was at camp first as a camper and then as an Atzma’im counselor. My staff had, for the most part, grown-up at camp. Yet after missing a year due to the global pandemic, none of us had been in this position we found ourselves in for summer 2021. Despite being new to our roles, we were still able to support 30+ campers very successfully. This makes me proud because it shows how well established our inclusion program is and, even with a new team, we continued to do what we have done for so many years before in creating accessibility for all. This is a testament to how inclusion is ingrained in our community and is here to stay no matter what.

What challenges, if any, has Capital Camps faced during the pandemic to keep people engaged? 

Lisa: The increased mental health needs seen in campers with and without disabilities was a challenge this past summer. It is not an exaggeration to say that we were front-line, mental health workers in summer 2021. In addition to creating a much-needed sense of normalcy, community, and joy we supported our camper and staff’s mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health needs.  In addition, we recruited, trained, and retained young staff members who were already exhausted and emotionally fragile after a year of loss and isolation. We started the summer with the optimistic hope that things would improve in terms of COVID. With the rise of the Delta variant, the opposite proved to be true, and we worked hard to keep our young-adult staff engaged. Our staff worked extremely hard and all except a handful worked until the end of their contract. We are very proud and thankful for our staff’s dedication and determination, especially our college-age counselor staff.

Anything else we didn’t ask that you want to mention? 

Lisa: Including individuals with additional support needs requires extra funding. In addition to employing an inclusion coordinator, an assistant inclusion coordinator, and a team of inclusion counselors, we have invested in capital improvements, purchased adaptive equipment, and rented accessible vehicles among other items. In the past, this added cost was shared with families of individuals with disabilities. Starting for summer 2022, campers with disabilities will not be charged an additional fee. This change is aligned strongly with our values, and we are very proud to be able to support our families in this way.

Explore disability inclusion opportunities.