Shelley A. Sackett, Journal correspondent
When Marty Schneer arrived in Marblehead in 2013 to take over as executive director of the JCCNS, one of the first people he met was Marcy Yellin, whose 32-year-old son, Jacob, has special needs and was employed at the JCCNS.
She told Schneer that the community lacked an inclusion camp. He asked her what she would like to see. Within months, Schneer formed a committee with Yellin and a few others, including Special Education teacher Melissa Caplan. By the following summer, the JCCNS Inclusion Camp was up and running with 20 campers and Caplan at the helm as director.
This year the Inclusion Camp has 40 campers, a staff of 25, and a long waiting list. Specially trained staff work with children to integrate them into Kindercamp, Simchah classic camps and the Simchah CIT program.
There are no criteria for admission. “We take inclusion pretty seriously, so how could we make criteria that excludes some?” Caplan asked. The only reason a camper might not receive support is if that individual already tried camp and the staff knows it is unable to keep that child of their peers safe.
Special needs campers participate in the same activities as their chronological peers, including aquatics and sports. “The goal of the camp is not only to provide services to a population who until now was not included, but also to break down the boundaries that often exist when people are not exposed to differences at an early age,” Caplan said.
Campers range in age from 2.9 months to teenagers. Staff includes teens and young adults who themselves have disabilities, filling an additional community need. “These individuals come to work and receive a paycheck just like their non-disabled peers,” Caplan said.
Inclusion campers and staff cope with a variety of disabilities that include developmental delays, intellectual impairments, autism, cerebral palsy, blindness, social/emotional disabilities, muscular dystrophy, down syndrome, seizure disorder and many more.
Most require on-on-one aids, which is expensive, and which is covered partially through private donations and organized fundraising. “We pride ourselves that the cost to attend camp is the same for all, whether you need a one-on-one aid or not,” Schneer said. “The underlying philosophical approach is that this is good for entire community of campers.”
“Marty believes in the need to support a neuro-diverse population, even though it costs the JCCNS a great deal,” Caplan added.
The term “neuro-diverse” means normal, natural variation in human cognition. It embodies the idea that those who are non-neuro typical can live their lives as they are with accommodations and modifications instead of being forced to conform to “normal.”
Caplan’s educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in multiple disabilities and a Masters degree in Early Intervention. She has worked in Roxbury, Newton and Marblehead and currently teaches special education at the Clarke School in Swampscott. “I believe wholeheartedly in the spirit of inclusion. It is a passion of mine,” she said.
During the rest of the year, the JCCNS runs adaptive/inclusion programs. Caplan works “very part time” in the year-round Inclusion Program, which last year added inclusive basketball and lacrosse clinics, Sunday family drumming circle and an IEP (individual educational program) support clinic for families. The program already has adaptive swim and gym programs.
Next year, Caplan would love to expand the sports clinics and start a lacrosse league and a Special Olympics swim team. “We have tons of great ideas and committed staff and eager participants. The only setback is funding,” she said.
In the meantime, Yellin sees the fruits of her vision every Friday as she walks down the hill to the JCCNS where she plays music. “I see wheelchairs amongst kids playing and all kinds of people in one space. It’s a beautiful sight,” she said.