Jewish summer camp is a proven way to inspire Jewish values and culture in the next generation. The magic of camp’s communal environment allows young people to engage in Judaism 24/7 and builds a strong sense of identity, belonging, and connection to our Jewish community. For more than five years, Jewish Federation of San Diego County has partnered with the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) to provide more than 600 children and teens with the experience of Jewish overnight camp thanks to the One Happy Camper incentive grant.
Gavin Mason almost couldn’t go to summer camp. A 9-year-old boy with Down Syndrome, Gavin was rejected by a summer program that couldn’t accommodate his significant developmental delays. His mother, Lynne, was used to fighting for him, but with money scarce and expenses high, it looked like Gavin would have to sit this summer out.
And then Federation stepped in.
Through a Federation-supported scholarship fund, Gavin was able to attend a local Jewish camp, which not only accommodated him, but welcomed him with open arms.
A unique contribution
“Far from treating my son like any sort of a burden, the camp staff all behaved as if we were doing them a great honor by giving them the opportunity to share their camp with my son,” says Lynne. “They assured me, as one voice, that people with differences have something unique to contribute to the community. They were eager to see what Gavin would contribute and how they could help him do that.”
The staff and volunteers went out of their way to create an inclusive environment for Gavin. And to help the non-verbal boy communicate with others, a student volunteer created handmade picture symbols to represent his camp experience, including Hebrew words like “tevah” and “seder.” Long after camp was over, those symbols helped Gavin talk about his camp memories and his favorite summer activities.
The camp’s dedicated staff also helped Lynne feel comfortable giving her son more independence. “My outlook and the way I saw Gavin changed. I felt less fearful for his future when I saw that he could engage successfully with others without me,” she shares.
A new family through Federation
Although Lynne and Gavin aren’t Jewish, this Federation-supported camp provided a new kind of family for the Masons. “When the camp staff treated Gavin as a gift and a blessing, I knew we had common ground,” says Lynne.
“It is far too common to look at children with special needs as a burden, not cost-effective and too much trouble, and then to provide services to the absolute minimum the law demands, and only when pressed.” Federation, she says, sees Gavin as so much more than that; it sees him as she sees him. “It takes faith to see a child with special needs as a gift. And Gavin is truly a gift.”