Sasha Pines says the inspiration came to her in the park one Sunday in the spring of 2012.
“I’m part of a Friendship Circle program called ‘Friends at Home,’ where teen volunteers visit children with special needs once a week and just hang around,” she explains. “I visit a family with three boys who have special needs. We were in the park together, and the mother was telling me how she wanted to send her boys to summer camp, but the camps she contacted were not equipped to accommodate them.
“Summer camp was one of my fondest childhood memories, and it broke my heart to hear that these kids were being denied the experience.”
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So Pines, 17, called Elisheva Green, director of the Friendship Circle in San Diego, Calif., and told her she wanted to start a camp for kids with special needs. Then she held a meeting of friends, and “we decided to go for it.”
A few months later, Friendship Circle’s Camp “Let Loose” opened its doors at Chabad of Poway, Calif., with nine campers. Pines, now a senior at San Diego Jewish Academy, says the name reflects her vision: “These kids don’t have many social opportunities, and this is really a place where they can let loose and have fun like other kids do in the summer time.”
Before camp started, the staff spent time training, learning techniques on how to work with the campers and studying emergency procedures.
Once there, each child was paired with a mainstream “friend” who accompanied him or her throughout the entire day.
Camp days, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday to Thursday, consisted of four segments.
The program started with music and dance, giving the children the opportunity to really “let loose.” The second activity featured simple games like “tag,” with each participating on his or her level. Lunch was followed by arts-and-crafts, where the staff was joined by volunteer art teachers. Each day was capped by a surprise fourth activity, ranging from a blow-up slide one day to a foam pit on another.
Counselors Sarah Hoskin and Leetal Nachassi help Ethan Geri and Joshua Holtzman learn about and experience the pleasures of life, from nature to music and more.
Pines says the activities were funded by donations she solicited from friends and family. Using Chabad of Poway’s facilities also allowed them to operate on a small budget. The staff was comprised of volunteers, some of whom worked with Friendship Circle during the school year.
Emily Curtis, now a senior at Canyon Crest Academy, was one of 13 teenagers who volunteered in the summer of 2012. The 17-year-old was astonished by how much the children taught her. “I have learned never to judge a person by how he or she looks or speaks. Someone may seem eccentric at first, but they can be the most amazing human being underneath.”
Planning for Success
Following the initial success of the camp, Pines spent the year planning a second session of Camp Let Loose this summer, with some important additions.
As word of the program spread, so did demand: 15 campers and 19 counselors signed up.
A new feature was a CIT (Counselor in Training) division for teens and young adults with special needs who were too advanced for the regular camp day.
Curtis, who directed the CIT program, acknowledges that “it was sometimes stressful to have a group of four individuals with special needs and their counselors depend on me to make sure they had a good time. I’d never done it before, but it was worth it. Just talking to them at the end of the day and hearing that they didn’t want to leave told me how special this time was for them.”
The CITs, ages 15 to 24, helped the staff by preparing snacks for campers and assisting with other activities. They also had their own CIT time to decompress.
Like the younger campers who each had personal counselors, the CITs were paired with mainstream “friends.”
Another addition was a trip to the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla, Calif., paid for by grant money Pines won from the Peter Chortek Foundation in recognition of her work with special-needs children. Of 35 nominees, she was one of three winners. She received $1,800, which she used to fund the camp. An additional $3,600 went towards her school tuition.
Inspiring Campers and Counselors Alike
For some younger children, the visit was the first outing they had ever taken without their parents. Curtis says it made her feel good to know that parents trusted them to keep their kids safe and happy. At the aquarium, Rabbi Mendy Rubenfeld, youth director at Chabad of Poway, gave an inspirational talk, and Andrew, one of the CITs, put on tefillin.
A new feature this year was a CIT (Counselor in Training) division for teens and young adults with special needs who were too advanced for the regular camp day.
Pines says the main point of the day was showing campers a good time. “To see them leave with smiles on their faces was amazing. They don’t go to parties, so this was really major for them.”
She adds that at the end of the day, some campers didn’t want to leave: “One girl’s nurse would say ‘let’s go,’ and the girl would lock her wheelchair in place to say she didn’t want to. These moments are incredible.”
With the summer’s adventures behind them, Pines and Curtis say they’re still not finished their work.
Says Pines: “We plan on spreading the word to other teen volunteers at the national Annual Friendship Circle Conference, which is held each spring in different locations. There has already been one other camp in Florida, and we’ve now set our sights on New York and Los Angeles.”