(Note: Below is a transcript of the speech given by Camp HASC parent—and Jewish Link office manager—Dena Kinderlehrer at this past Saturday night’s Camp HASC reception in Teaneck at the home of Jason and Pnina Suss and co-hosted by Ethan and Melissa Keiser.)
I really don’t enjoy speaking in front of a room full of people, but after I was asked by our hosts and friends Jason and Pnina Suss to speak, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt compelled to speak about my experiences as a parent of a HASC camper.
Our family has a long history with Camp HASC.
For starters, I have a sister, Naama, who was a camper for many years at HASC. Naama has CP and is wheelchair bound, and I grew up going to visit her on Visiting Day at HASC ever since I was a young girl.
My husband, Moshe, also has a brother, Baruch, who went to HASC for many summers.
My husband and I also worked there as counselors for a number of great summers and met there. We became a “HASC couple” as they are known—probably one of hundreds by now. HASC is literally responsible for our family being together.
So Camp HASC was always going to have a special place in our hearts.
But we thought our HASC journey ended there. We were happy being staff alumni.
(Unlike my sister-in-law, Rayzel Yaish, who never really left Camp HASC and is now the women’s head counselor.)
Fast forward to when we became HASC parents four years ago, sending our then 12-year-old son Zev to HASC as a camper.
This was not the return to HASC we had imagined.
I remember that first day that I dropped Zev off at camp. It was very hard for me and I cried most of the way home.
I cried because I never really thought I would have a child who would be a camper in HASC.
I was not worried at all about the care and whether Zev would like it or not. We had almost no concerns about that at all.
I knew he’d love it and have a great summer.
It was just really, really hard for me to accept.
Even though we knew—much better than most new HASC parents—how amazing a place Camp HASC was—from our own experiences there—having a child there was a whole different story.
It was not in our original plan for our family, nor our ideal choice of summer camps.
But as Zev’s parents, we were learning that the original plans for our family would not be our reality.
Let me tell you a bit about Zev. He is autistic with global developmental delays. He is also a sweet, handsome, outgoing teenager who loves being around people (especially kids his own age, teens and young adults).
He loves going to shul, loves singing and davening, and enjoys just being treated like everyone else.
Zev simply wants to be around people and is friendly to anyone willing to talk to him. He may not be able to have a normal conversation, but we know that when you spend time with him and just say hello or even smile at him it means a lot to him, and to us, his parents.
Over the past few years, his teachers have stopped promising us that he will one day learn to read and write and now focus on helping Zev master “daily living skills,” such as dressing himself and personal grooming.
Despite our being special needs “veterans,” this prognosis was hard to accept—and it will always be hard to swallow for us.
Being told by well-meaning teachers and case managers that your healthy-seeming son will never be independent is a direct hit to the gut.
When you find out your child will never be able to absorb the simplest tools required to function at even the most basic levels of society—that he won’t be able to sign his name or read directions—the most normal dreams parents have for their children vanish into thin air. Zev will never drive a car, read a book, go to college, get married or achieve independence.
We struggle still to create new dreams to replace those shattered by his diagnosis.
For the seven weeks of Camp HASC every summer, this ongoing struggle fades a bit.
We love the seven weeks of Camp HASC. Why?
For one, it’s the break that it gives our family. During the summer, while Zev is away, our family is able to do many things that we simply cannot normally do when Zev is home. We don’t have to deal with the daily challenges that come with having a child with special needs.
We often aren’t able to do simple activities that most families barely think twice about. We can never go bike riding because Zev cannot ride.
We cannot walk together in places like Manhattan because there are too many dogs—which Zev is terribly afraid of and has run into the street without looking to get away from.
And although Zev is normally well-behaved and smiley and friendly, he does sometimes have outbursts, and it can be embarrassing for us to be around other people or in public with him.
His younger, but bigger, brother and roommate, Noam, gets a well-deserved break from sharing a room with his brother with special needs.
All in all, when he is away at Camp HASC, we are all much calmer and more relaxed. We love it and we know that Zev loves it there too—in part because he asks us about when camp will be starting almost from the moment he gets home.
By the way, in case you’re wondering, the first day of Camp HASC is 60 days and nine hours from now.
What do we and Zev love about Camp HASC? His day is so full there!
There are activities such as cooking, swimming, sports, art and so much more. Every day has a different theme such as Harry Potter Day, Color Day, Pirate Day, and the list goes on.
I can’t forget to mention that the most amazing part of camp for our son Zev are the amazing concerts almost weekly with every popular Jewish music singer out there.
At home, Zev doesn’t go out with friends or have the opportunities to do regular teen “stuff” like his peers and siblings. In camp, he’s always busy and having fun with his counselors and bunkmates.
And his counselors have been such important people in our lives from year to year. Many of them have stayed in touch. They call, and have had Zev stay over in their homes for Shabbos.
He even just went to one of his counselors’ weddings a month ago. This counselor, Yaakov, sent Zev an invitation with a personal note saying how much it would mean to have Zev at his wedding. He wrote how he loves Zev so much and wants him to share in this most important day in his life. We were incredibly touched and we made sure Zev went to that wedding an hour and a half away from our home. Yaakov was so happy to dance with Zev, but I think and like to believe that Zev was happier to be there that night.
If you’ve never been to Camp HASC before, I strongly recommend you go visit and see what the words heaven on earth really mean. It sounds like a pretty strong statement, but it’s true.
You will see counselors and staff kissing and hugging and dancing with campers—some of whom are very physically challenged and can even be hard to look at.
You will also see a tremendous achdut at camp—especially on Visiting Day. On Visiting Day you will see chasidim, secular Jews and everyone in between come together in this amazing place…and we all feel united as Jews and special-needs parents and family; we are part of the same family—the HASC family.
I cannot say enough to describe our hakarat hatov to HASC. The amount of love that Zev and we have been shown over the past few summers and beyond has really been remarkable. We are looking forward to it continuing for many years to come.
In fact, it’s continuing this summer with our daughter Tamar becoming a HASC waitress along with her friend Avigayil Keiser.
Thank you for listening to me speak and for coming tonight…and for joining us in our support of Camp HASC.
By Dena Kinderlehrer
(Editor’s Note: If interested, you can still support Camp HASC and donate online at: teaneck.camphasc.org.)