Michael Boussina with aide Julie Bouzouzi at the JCCSF summer camp (Photo/Courtesy Eileen Boussina)
Michael Boussina with aide Julie Bouzouzi at the JCCSF summer camp (Photo/Courtesy Eileen Boussina)

Camp at JCCSF tailored to kids with special needs

To make his smoothie, 11-year-old Michael Boussina put some ingredients in a blender and gave it a whir.

Under regular circumstances, Michael, who is developmentally delayed, would need help to operate a blender.

But at the JCC of San Francisco, it wasn’t a problem — at least not at the center’s culinary camp for kids.

April Swenson
April Swenson

April Swenson, the JCCSF’s youth inclusion coordinator, tracked down a device that plugged into the blender, allowing Michael to turn it on with the press of a big red button. Smoothie goals accomplished.

“He’s motivated by food and eating, tastes and textures,” said Michael’s mom, Eileen Boussina of San Francisco. As for the camp, she added, “We really felt welcome and included. There was nothing they didn’t try to do for us.”

It was a satisfying moment in the first summer of a two-year pilot program promoting the inclusion of children with special needs at JCC camps. Planning for year two is underway, with the 2018 brochure set to go online next month.

The 2017 camp welcomed dozens of kids with a range of disabilities, including autism, anxiety disorders, deafness and global developmental delays. All were welcome.

Abby Cutler
Abby Cutler

“The inclusion program was open to all camps,” said Abby Cutler, the JCCSF’s director of school-age programs. “Outbound camps took field trips to Great America [in Santa Clara] and Six Flags [in Vallejo]. Some got to do sports camps and some were in the gymnastics, arts, dance and swimming program.”

With a two-year, $120,000 grant from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, the pilot program is creating a plan for each camper with special needs; part of that includes hiring trained paraprofessionals to give the kids one-on-one support.

For Michael, that meant being able to have some good ol’ summer fun. A fifth-grader with a genetic condition that resulted in some cognitive and visual impairment, Michael is nonverbal and needs “extra support,” according to his mother.

“It takes expertise and understanding [and] training to make things work,” she said. “As a parent, I would never have known anything until I had a child with these needs. It takes someone who has the experience and knowledge to make it work.”

At the JCCSF, that someone is Swenson, the inclusion expert who now devotes most of her time to camp and family programs. Swenson earned a master’s degree in special education from San Francisco State University and has a special-ed teaching credential in moderate to severe disabilities, with a specialization in deafness and blindness.

“Having April there was a great start in making as inclusive a setting as possible for kids like mine,” Boussina said. “She knew what to do to help support my kid.”

Nine-year-old Jacqueline Ball has some intellectual and physical delays, and is also deaf; she has cochlear implants and uses an iPad to communicate. She also loves to have fun, and over the summer she, too, took part in the JCCSF’s culinary camp for kids.

“She’s a happy little girl, despite the challenges placed in her lap,” said her mother, Pamela Ball of San Francisco. “She loves being around other people, loves being around older kids. It’s a challenge, of course. When she is able to be out in the world, that’s the best place to be. It’s not only good for her, it’s good for the world we live in.”

Ball said having a successful camp experience for kids like hers required more than simply having aides on hand. The entire JCC camp staff had training, and though the JCC facility is fully compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, every aspect of daily camp life required review — from access to appropriate bathrooms to making sure lessons and activities were accessible to every child.

It takes expertise and understanding [and] training to make things work.

“It takes a lot of work,” Ball stated. “It’s not like you can prepare completely in advance. You have to adapt as you go. They did all of that — full service. They had a real willingness to adapt to the kids.”

For Jacqueline, who uses a wheelchair, that meant helping her participate in every aspect of culinary camp, from pouring and stirring to packing a picnic basket for a camp outing.

As the word implies, “inclusion” means kids with special needs are included in activities with all other campers. The benefits run both ways, organizers and parents noted.

One thing that’s “touching and amazing,” Ball said, is that “kids don’t come with the biases.” For example, “A little girl came up and said, ‘What’s going on with [Jacqueline]? Can she hear me?’ She asked if she could touch her wheelchair, and she made Jacqueline a piece of jewelry. She was her buddy for the week.”

Said Swenson: “We would engage the kids, encourage them to ask questions, and after they asked they were comfortable. They would sit next to each other, and be on the lookout to make sure everybody was getting a turn.”

By all metrics, the first year of the pilot program was a success. With more than 40 campers, enrollment exceeded expectations, and post-camp surveys were uniformly positive, JCCSF officials noted. The main thing parents would change: Add more weeks of camp.

The plan now is to roll out the model to other JCCSF camps, such as winter camp, and spread the ethos of inclusion throughout all JCCSF programming.

“The JCC is about cultivating connections between people and communities,” said Marci Glazer, CEO of the JCCSF. “The focus on inclusion means we are creating deeper relationships with families that have operated on the margins of our community, bringing them into closer connection with us and with their peers. In that way, we are highlighting our focus on basic human dignity and that everybody has something to teach and to learn.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.