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PA: JCC "Inclusive" summer camp; neurodiverse people have always been here

July 19, 2023, WTAE, Pittsburgh: JCC making summer camp more inclusive

Neurodiverse children welcome in day camp environment

All are welcome at JCC Day Camps, including the one in four children who are neurodiverse.

"We have kind of been on a journey to being better equipped to serve neurodiverse campers and neurodiverse staff and to really make all of our JCC camp programs more inclusive for more children," director Rachael Speck said.

Pittsburgh's Action News 4 visited a JCC camp in Monroeville to learn more about what it means to be neurodiverse, and what the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh is doing to close the gap in services offered for children, even after the summer.

"Sometimes those needs or those challenges aren't as obvious," Speck said. "They are neurodiverse, meaning it's in their brains, and it's less physical or not obvious intellectually, and so they're kids who otherwise would fall through the cracks."

"People have always been around that are neurodiverse, there have always been people with ADHD, there have always been people with autism. That is not new," inclusion consultant Aprilynn Artz said. "What is new is that we now know more what it looks like, and because we know what it looks like, now we can help people more effectively."

That includes training staff members on neurodiversity.

"I've worked with a couple of campers with neurodiverse needs. Some of them have sensory issues where they can't touch certain things, need headphones, need fidgets. Some of them need space by themselves, and it's forced me to be creative with them because it forces me to understand something that's not the usual for me," camp counselor Aidan Nicholas said.

The JCC says camp is a perfect setting to bring all kinds of campers and staff together.

"In a camp environment like this one, there's some really valuable life skills that are learned here for when children are away from their parents, like what it means to keep track of all of your personal belongings in your backpack, and teaching responsibility, teaching to speak up and ask for when you need something and to advocate for yourself," Spack said.

Through sports, swimming and crafts, there are lessons to be learned.

"Find yourself," Nicholas said. "There's no problem with being by yourself, and there's no problem with making friends. Don't let anybody make you feel or make you think that you're something different. You're just like everybody else. You just have your own quirks. Foster them."

The JCC wants to take its new inclusion efforts beyond summer camp. They have a $2 million matching grant to build a new structure to help young people year-round.

"There is still a subset of the neurodiverse population out there that we can't serve unless we have an indoor space with four walls that is sensory friendly, and tactile and temperature controlled," Speck said.

It's one more way Pittsburgh can learn to be inclusive.

"I learned that they're just regular kids, like stuff that they do is stuff that I did as a kid, but they just have different needs that I need to accommodate for," Nicholas said. "They show love the same, so I reciprocate it."

The JCC spends time training all staff, including counselors, on the latest in neurodiversity, and they hire neurodiverse people.


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