“Summer wasn’t complete without hearing his laugh coming over the hill.” – My friend Meredith, referring to me in a re-post of my “My Launch Pad” blog post.
The above flattering quote typifies the overwhelming and soul enriching response to my post about the launch pad provided to me by my inclusion that summer camp. I was moved by the reaction of my beloved fellow alumni.
More than that, I remembered anew that inclusion is a function of people more than places, attitudes as much as actions, and feelings as much as realities. Conversely, exclusion can result from perceiving oneself as unworthy of affection, respect, and inclusion. I can’t speak of the inclusion of camp, and of how it nurtured my soul, developing me and preparing me to launch, without a discussion of the people.
Camps themselves are just rolling pieces of beautiful land, and camp programs so many ideas on paper, without the people that make it real. It was in hundreds of thousands of interactions with my fellow campers and staff, the way we engaged, and the way they treated me, and laughed with me, played with me, and occasionally argued with me, that I truly felt myself brought within the community. Collectively, and individually, each one of them was somebody without whom, to paraphrase Meredith, “summer would not be complete.”
My fellow alumni, my camp friends and family, (of which I was privileged to have my biological family be a part), the thousands of wonderful people that actually reached out to help me become the man that I am today, they are the true architects of inclusion. If camp was my launch pad, they were my ground crew, my engineers, my fellow astronauts and mission control.
Indulge me, so that I may share a little bit about my interactions with them, and how it would help me to challenge my self-perception, and to make sure that I never excluded myself. Individually, you will find no greater human beings. Collectively, you will find no greater group of exemplars of the inclusion that we all want to practice.
An aside: I will only be using first names in these stories. I have chosen to share my experiences that some might enjoy and others might learn, but, a similar decision would be for each of them to make. Also, had I a book and not a blog, and a memory like a computer, I would still have trouble recounting all of the wonderful people in my camp life. This is not even an attempt to do that, but rather to use a few select people to illustrate the incredible collective role of these wonderful human beings in my inclusion experience. (Special mention to David Friedman and Eve Rudin Kleinman, the individuals at Eisner and Kutz respectively who had overall responsibility for my inclusion.)
The first camp person I remember is Ilana. We were both camp babies at Eisner camp, and, being similar in age, we were childhood playmates in the days when we were too young for formal programming. As I look back at my life, she must have been my first able-bodied playmate (my only segregated educational experience was my nursery school, a delightful program for its time at United Cerebral Palsy in Connecticut.)
Three decades, disparate lives, and in her case marriage to another treasured friend of mine, Danny, and children, have long ago pushed our paths apart, and these days I learn about her life from Facebook status updates. Still, I haven’t forgotten the powerful memory of that first friend, and I haven’t forgotten that, even as an adult, on the rare occasions when we encounter each other, I’m touched by the powerful familiarity that comes with a friendship of such long-standing. I’m also aware of how rare it was for a person with my level of disability in my generation to have that kind of friendship within able-bodied child, long before the world was beating the drum of inclusion.
Also in those early years, the warm and open camp family helped me to find my voice as a public speaker. Various official biographical sketches will tell you that I began public speaking at age 4, and it makes for a good publicity point. The human element that is missing from that discussion is that, in order to give a four-year-old such a platform, to envelop him in comfort, and empower him to share, requires a panoply of special people. Here, I don’t exactly know who was involved in arranging my opportunity to speak to the whole camp at age 4, apart from my wonderful parents,but I know that, to do it, they had to instill a self confidence that remains to this day.
What’s more, quite apart from those presumably staff decision makers, there were the hundreds of Eisner campers who listened patiently to a piping four-year-old, who asked questions, whose warm interest I remember even now. One of them, in fact, my friend Jen, still reminds me to this day of the impact of that my words had on her life. There can be no greater affirmation than that.
As I grew through childhood, other warm campers would add to that sense of affirmation. While I was still in day camp, (then the program for faculty children not yet of camp age) a group of girls in the youngest unit became my swim buddies. The long passage of time has dulled my memory of all of the names, but I do remember Courtney and Stephanie among them.
On the one hand, eight-year-old girls everywhere enjoy six-year-olds, sort of like a human doll. Yet, one could easily imagine an experience where I, as the six-year-old it was a little different, was rejected or shunned. Instead I was embraced (figuratively and literally) and, while I may have developed a bit of an ego problem, I certainly never needed to ponder if I was wanted or loved.
This lesson, learned at camp, became something of a subconscious self-affirmation. As hard as it is, before you can really push for your own inclusion, it helps to be convinced that people want you there and may be don’t know what they’re missing yet. This lesson, I learned from my camp family. (My biological family is also very loving, but it’s hard to translate those lessons into dealing with the wider world.)
This lesson would continue to be reinforced by dozens of fantastic bunkmates throughout the years. Since I cannot name them all, and I have no meaningful way to choose, I have chosen to name none of them. Just know that you are all in my heart.
Many such lessons would be learned at the pool. At the pool was where I would flirt for the first time, lacking some of the physical distance that my wheelchair put between me and others on land. I won’t name names here, but I am grateful to a long list of young women whose good-natured flirtation made me feel lovable in another way, before I would fall prey in my late teens to the deep insecurities that almost all of us with disabilities have when it comes to body image, an issue about which I have written before. Here, even the power of camp’s inclusion could not spare me the scourge of self exclusion, but I like to think that it planted seeds as I fight to break free even now.
Also at the pool, I would learn to respect my body as the only one I had, and something for which I needed to care. I think many of us with physical disabilities tend to think of our bodies as useless at best and liabilities at worst. We eschew exercise not out of laziness, but because it seems pointless. I’m grateful then to Wendy. who began to teach me to use my body to swim in the pool, and to Doug, who, over my vociferous objections, made me swim every safe pool day for all of my years at camp, because he knew that my health depended on it. I’m grateful to Jacob, to Asher, and to Stephanie, who would allow me to continue this important habit when I moved from Eisner to Kutz, with Asher and Jacob even creating an achievement award. I have all the bad habits of a middle-aged man, but I never lost the appreciation that my body was important and that I could maintain it if I put in the effort. I was included in being healthy.
I learned at camp that I could be included in anything if it was important enough to me. I am grateful to Animal, and to Jen, who tried tirelessly, if in vain, to find a way that I could play the guitar when I was young, and to Andy, and Robbie, and Rosalie, each of whom would help me to realize my dreams of leading a song session, even though a guitar would always elude my grasp. I learned that I could be included in anything, if I was willing to accept that that inclusion might look different than the way that I first envisioned. The day that I sat next to Andy on the elevated stage in Eisner’s old Chadar Ochel (dining hall) is still one of my happiest memories.
I learned that even my needs could be a source of inclusion, rather than exclusion. I learned it as my friendships with Eric (now Winter) and Josh deep end as they helped to meet my physical needs at Kutz when my Camp America staffers proved on equal to the task. I learned it when Billy and Jeff and Franklin and Aaron and Scott and Scott (two different people, you know who you are), and many staff members not named here, took their own roles in my care. And finally, I learned it, when, as pictured below, my beloved Kutz bunk mates transformed my fear of traveling camp paths alone into an honored role for them as my Secret Service guards.
Me and my “Secret Service Bodyguards” URJ Kutz Camp, 1996, Photo Credit: Melanie Ross Levin
And lastly, I learned, oh so painfully, just how my inclusion could impact the lives of others, in ways I might never know. In March 1992, my camp friend, Marc Erenberg was tragically killed at age 13, the victim of the drunk driver. At three years older than me, Marc was a friend I looked up to, but not really a peer, as his sister, Robin would become. Had you asked to me in February 1992, I would have been gratified to merely find that he remembered my name.
And yet, I remember vividly, when my father came to me, in the basement of our Connecticut home, and told me that my friend had been killed. He didn’t stop there, though. He told me that he had heard from the family, and that, apparently, I had made a significant impact in Marc’s life. So important did they feel that I was to him, that they were going to support inclusion efforts at camp in his memory.
At the time, I had trouble going beyond the simple tragedy of the bad news. I was not yet 11, and the death of a friend is a big deal. As I came to reflect, over the years, though, I was moved and continue to be moved by the idea that my inclusion had so moved another individual on the idea of inclusion that inclusion had become a way to honor his memory. I only wish that he had lived so we could have seen just what further inclusion he would have inspired. I learned from this that not only could I be included, but that, regardless of my general feelings on the inspirational nature of people with disabilities, I had an obligation to let my inclusion be a catalyst for more inclusion.
When I say camp was a launch pad, I mean that it gave me the tools to fly. Without these tools, they could ramp every door in the world, and I would not be included, because I’d be unable to let myself in. Without learning to see myself as able to connect to those without disabilities. Without learning to be comfortable in raising my own voice. Without learning that I was wanted. Without learning that my body, too, mattered. Without learning that I could realize my dreams. Without learning that I could contribute best to this world by fully engaging in it. Without all of these lessons, I could not have been included in life the way I have. Without the people mentioned above, and so many many more, I’d never have learned these lessons.
So learn some of them, if you haven’t. Teach some of them, if you can. Let my wonderful camp family serve as your exemplars, if you need. And together, let’s launch everyone into a life of inclusion.