Lili runs into the hallway where a paper airplane competition is happening. She launches her plane but it doesn’t go very far. So she goes to her friend Jacob and asks him to try.
“Can you get it to fly any further?”
When Jacob’s attempt results in a crashed plane two feet away from them, Lili is relieved. “Oh good, it’s the plane, not me.”
In her way, Lili, 12, is reassuring Jacob: “It’s not you either.”
Lili and Jacob are among 16 campers in the 12-to-14 age group at Camp Kochavim for kids with special needs, at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville.
For the first time, the camp has opened the 12-to-14 group to campers who do not identify as having disabilities. Lili is one of three to join. (The Bender JCC requested that the children not be identified by last name to protect their privacy.)
The camp makes it clear: Lili is not a helper or counselor, but a peer.
“We’re promoting the idea that friendships are real,” says Inclusion Director Eva Cowen. “That being with someone who has a disability doesn’t necessarily mean being in the helping role.”
Through age 11, Bender JCC’s day camp, called Camp JCC, includes children of all abilities, Cowen says. After that age, kids begin to pursue other summer activities.
By then, the kids had made friends, regardless of ability. And some campers, like Lili, want to be with their longtime camp friends. “How can you say no to that?” Cowen says. “They just wanted to be together.”
And they support each other. During drama time, campers are called to perform individually or in pairs. Each time someone is selected, there is a roar of applause and cheers from the other campers.
Lili also spends time with her friend Sarah, who she’s known for four years. Sarah uses a motorized wheelchair and has an individual counselor named Lynsey. Lili nominates Lynsey to participate in a beat boxing activity.
Sitting down next to Sarah, Lili insists, “Sarah and I want to watch Lynsey.”
Lili has a number of reasons for being here. Her 14-year-old brother has autism. Lili loves the camp so much that she plans to become a counselor-in-training, then a junior counselor, then head counselor.
“I met my two best friends here,” she says, adding that they know what it’s like to have a family member with special needs. “It’s nice to be able to talk to people who understand.”
Similarly, a 13-year-old Henry attends the camp with his twin brother, Teddy, who uses a motorized wheelchair. Henry says it’s nice to be able to go to camp with his brother.
During music time, the instructor is asking campers for nouns, verbs and adjectives, Mad Libs style, to fill in the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Teddy shouts out a suggestion that makes the counselors laugh. “Wait, what’d he say?” says Henry, who missed it the first time.
At times, Henry leans on Teddy’s wheelchair. He smiles when Teddy beat boxes during drama time.
Henry was previously in Camp JCC’s drama camp, and met his friend Daniel in 2016. They’ve known each other “since we were in ‘Wizard of Oz’ together,” Henry says. They walk down the hallway together and banter about why Daniel didn’t come to see “The Lion King,” which Henry was in.
While teenagers move on from camp to jobs, internships or other summer commitments, teenagers with disabilities don’t always have those same opportunities, Cowen says. Camp Kochavim lets people until age 21 to participate in summer activities.
“They like being treated like regular teenagers,” says Cowen.
There are 43 kids enrolled in Camp Kochavim this summer. The two older groups (ages 15-17 and 18-21) include only campers with disabilities. The oldest group works on life skills such as cooking and social skills to prepare them for the transition into adult life.
Cowen says including non-disabled campers in Kochavim is “a work in progress. They came in knowing the other kids already, so they knew what it was going to be like, and yeah they’re definitely enjoying it.”
During music class with the 12-14 Kochavim group, Lili says, “We changed Country Roads to be Montrose Road, which is where our camp is.”
The instructor, with his microphone and amplified guitar, leads the campers as they all sing, “Montrose Road, take me home/ to the camp where I belong/ down in Rockville, Camp JCC/ take me home, down Montrose Road.”