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This Jewish Camp Is Teaching Teens With Special Needs How To Be Independent

Like many 20-year-olds, Jacob Rapport has a summer job. This year, he’s working at Trig’s Market in Eagle River, Wisconsin. He started off as a cleaner, but after a few weeks, he asked for and received a promotion to bagger. “I think bagging has more responsibilities,” he said. “There can be pros and negatives, but I like to interact with the customers.”

Unlike many 20-year-olds, though, Rapport has, as he described it, “some things in life I have to work on, like staying focused. I have a hard time living in the moment. I’m always worrying about the future, thinking about the past.” He sometimes gets anxious or feels like he’s being watched, like on a hidden-camera show. This makes many social interactions difficult for him. He was nervous about starting his job at Trig’s.

But he’s had help from Atzmayim, a vocational program at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, where he started as a camper in 2013, and which set him up with the job and works with him to make sure he succeeds.

Atzmayim, the Hebrew word for “independent,” is an extension of Tikvah, Ramah’s program for campers on the autism spectrum or who have other social or learning challenges. All Atzmayim participants are high school graduates between ages 18 and 23, and they all work three hours a day, five days a week, in the town of Eagle River, about 15 minutes from camp. Many locations in the Ramah network of camps, which are affiliated with Judaism’s Conservative movement, have vocational programs for participants with special needs, but most are centered on jobs within the camp. Ramah Wisconsin’s is the only one that sends its participants out into the surrounding community. This, said Ralph Schwartz, the camp’s director of special needs programming, is an important distinction.

“As wonderful as camp is, for our participants working, it can sometimes be too accommodating,” he explained. “Everyone is too nice. When you’re bagging at the supermarket, you have to handle customers. You have to be respectful and you have to say ‘Good morning’ and ‘Have a nice day.’ When your supervisor at the coffee shop says, ‘Please sweep the floor,’ you can’t say, ‘I’m not in the mood,’ or ‘I just did it a couple of hours ago.’”

Atzmayim, in short, is a crash course in adulthood for young people who have previously never had much independence. Selection to the program depends less on a diagnosis than on an ability to function. “When we’re accepting people,” said Schwartz, “they need to be able to work three hours a day. We want to make this successful for everybody. We are looking for people who can meet those expectations. And a lot of people rise up to meet those expectations.”

Participants—as they’re called, not “campers”—live in staff housing and, in addition to working, are expected to wake up on time and get ready for their jobs, do their laundry, keep themselves and their rooms clean, help cook their own dinners, and figure out when they need to go to bed so they won’t be exhausted the next day. For many, said Schwartz, this is their first experience using an alarm clock.

But the program also provides a strong support system so the participants can, as Schwartz put it, “be as independent as [they] can be. For different people, it’s different levels.” During their non-working hours, participants practice how to deal with issues that might come up at work, or with their roommates, or with other people they might encounter in the wider world. This involves a lot of role-playing exercises so that participants will be prepared if people respond in unexpected ways.

For example, Schwartz said, there was once a participant who had a job bagging groceries. He learned how to greet customers and ask them what kind of bag they wanted. But one day a woman came in who was in a hurry and didn’t answer when he asked “paper or plastic?” Frustrated, the participant told her “Whatever.”

“We had to work with him and let him know you can’t say that to a customer,” Schwartz said. “[The customer] didn’t follow the script. He wasn’t sure what to do. Every little thing like that is a learning experience.”

Atzmayim began in 2004 when Rabbi David Soloff and Margaret Silverman, who were the camp director and Tikvah director at the time, approached several business owners in Eagle River and asked if they would help provide the participants with job skills they could take into the real world. At first, said Schwartz, the business owners were wary. They agreed to work with the camp, but they were nervous about how it would go. But now, 13 years later, 10 Atzmayim participants work in five local businesses: Trig’s, a coffee shop, a children’s museum, a toy store, and Ace Hardware. At the end of the summer, the business owners provide the participants with recommendations they can use when they apply for other jobs back home.

“Now the owners themselves give us referrals on which new businesses to go to,” Schwartz said. “I don’t think any of us could have imagined the relationship we have now with the business owners in Eagle River, none of whom are Jewish. The camp and town have always had a good relationship, but this takes it to a new level. It makes it very personal.”

“Generally [Atzmayim participants] are very helpful,” said Michael Nabbefeld, the assistant store director at Trig’s. “We’re so busy at this time of year, their helping hand can be absolutely wonderful. What really helps a lot is that the workers that are coming to help us have job coaches. We work with the job coaches, let them know how they can help us. And the job coaches work with the participants.”

It was Jacob Rapport’s job coach, Allie Rosen, this year’s director of Atzmayim, who suggested that he ask for a promotion from cleaning to bagging and helped him rehearse the conversation with his supervisor. “Maybe I psyched myself out a few times,” he admitted. But he’s found that he’s a good bagger, and most of the customers he’s met have been kind. “I may tell a customer, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ And they’ll say, ‘Don’t be sorry! Take your time!’ It’s so nice.”

When he’s not working or practicing life skills, Rapport, like others in Atzmayim, gets to enjoy camp life. (Which, actually, is practice for another life skill: managing one’s leisure time.) Each participant is paired up with a staff member who serves as a friend and mentor. Along with younger campers in Tikvah, Atzmayim takes turns leading Friday night services and prayers after meals in the dining hall. Depending on their skills and interests, they can play sports or do arts and crafts.

On Wednesdays, their day off, Atzmayim members volunteer at a nearby senior center. This part of the program was added just this year, at the suggestion of Rosen, who thought it would be nice for the participants to gain experience caring for other people. It’s been so successful, Schwartz says, that next year one of the Atzmayim participants will work there throughout the program.

Most Atzmayim participants are in the program for two or three summers. This is Rapport’s second year. It may be his last; in the future, he plans to go to Ohio State University in his hometown of Columbus. Schwartz believes that the skills he’s learned in the summer will help him there.

The program provides “a certain level of independence,” Schwartz said. “The program is challenging to the participants. We’re constantly working on goals for them. Letting your boss know when you’re there, telling your boss when you’re leaving, break time. When you don’t understand a direction, asking. All these things can be hard. They’re hard for anybody. Letting them get those real-world experiences — it works.”

For further information, please contact Ralph Schwartz at [email protected].

Aimee Levitt reports regularly on Chicagoland for the Forward. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter, @aimeelevitt.

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