Tamarack Camps Special Needs

Long established as the “summer home” and family extension to nearly 1,200 children and teens each year, Tamarack Camps continues to redefine the meaning of inclusion – for the benefit of all.

What does inclusion look like and what does it feel like at Tamarack?

Franki Bagdade
Franki Bagdade

“We ask ourselves these questions in everything we do,” says Franki Bagdade, Director of Support Services and Special Needs at Tamarack Camps. Franki was hired last year, thanks to a generous endowment of the Dresner Foundation to enhance programs serving campers with special needs at Camp Maas.

A seasoned professional in special education, Franki brings to Tamarack her 15 years of experience, including work at Eton Academy and Hillel Day School. In her year-round position at Tamarack Camps, she also continues her work as a consultant with Federation’s Opening the Doors Program for special needs in the community’s Jewish Day Schools and synagogues.

“In a camp setting, we believe that inclusion should be second nature, where our diversity is celebrated,” she observes. “A typical bunk comprises campers from a wide range of backgrounds, each with different needs; they may be best friends at camp together for years or new campers; they could be Israelis here in the U.S. for the first time; they could be great athletes and not-so great athletes; everyone has a talent to be discovered or nurtured and, of course, there are those with special needs – learning differences, as well as special dietary or medical needs. Inclusion is about all of us learning to live together – as bunk mates, as counselors and colleagues, as part of a village, as participants on a trip, as friends sharing a transformative experience.”

Tamarack Campers with special needs
Tamarack has provided support for campers with special needs has been integrated into these two programs at Tamarack Camps since the early 1990s.

Safe. Welcoming. Empowering. And now more affordable.   

Tamarack Camps offers two programs for campers who have learning, social or communication differences.

  • Yachad (meaning together) Inclusion Program – also known as Nachman Horizons – offers a safe and secure environment for children entering the 2nd through 7th grades. With the support of a skilled staff trained in special needs, campers in the program are fully integrated into villages and activities with their peers.
  • Avodah (meaning work) is a job coaching and life skills program together with a recreational program for young adults entering 10th grade and extending into their 20s.

Where support for campers with special needs has been integrated into these two programs at Tamarack Camps since the early 1990s, the level of support has changed dramatically over the past year to the benefit of the entire camp community. Thanks to the endowment of the Dresner Foundation, this year, for the first time, Tamarack Camps will provide specialized support and staffing for campers in its Yachad Inclusion Program at no additional cost to their families. “The benefit represents a real game-changer for many families in the community,” says Franki. “Until now, the fee to provide a shadow for campers with special needs was an additional $1,250 per session. Now all of our campers are included at the regular Tamarack rate and are eligible for financial aid as well.”

An inclusion program that now includes enriching internships

Also new to the program, Tamarack Camps is now recruiting and training college students working on degrees or with previous experience in special education, social work or other related fields in nursing, occupational therapy and psychology. As interns, they have an unprecedented opportunity for on-the- job training, meeting daily with Franki as well as other Tamarack Camps professionals. Last year JVS partnered with Tamarack Camps to train staff and set up a formal job coaching program.

As Franki explains, “At camp, interns get constant feedback from their peers. Because we live together, at every meal we’re checking in, asking how things are going, what we’ve tried, what didn’t work, what we might do better or differently. I can’t think of another job opportunity where I’ve had that ability to provide a more comprehensive and consistent intern training program.”

Hitting the sweet spot

“We have an amazing staff of professionals at camp,” says Steve Engel, Tamarack Camps’ Chief Executive Officer. “While there’s a national movement in Jewish camping calling for more inclusion programs, we are on the leading edge, working with the national Foundation for Jewish Camping to redefine what inclusion looks like and ways to improve, based on research and the experience of leading practitioners in the field.

“Our summers at camp are magic,” adds Steve. “You can call it our brand of ruach – Tamarack spirit – but because we are outside the pressure cooker of school, we get the opportunity to see campers grow by leaps and bounds. We feel that our model benefits everyone who comes to camp.”

“Outside the classroom, there’s no need for labels to identify special needs,”  says Franki. “All campers are supported by the Tamarack Care Team with the goal to be successful at camp. It’s a very different environment. Issues can arise at camp that don’t come out a home. You never know when or how an individual child will need a little help, a boost of confidence or extra emotional support. Defining inclusion, our job is to be there for everyone to provide support wherever needed. And truly, at the end of the day, it’s a joy to see the difference camp can make for a child— watching them become a part of our community, making those connections that can last for a lifetime.”

Expanding its Yachad and Avodah programs this summer, Tamarack Camps is currently recruiting for 12 to 14 interns specializing in support services for campers. Interested? For details, please call Franki Bagdade at 248-647-1100 or email bagdade@tamarackcamps.org