I remember the first time I ever heard of Camp Kaylie. It was late on a school night in the seventh grade, and my parents asked me if I wanted to go to a Kaylie orientation. They told me that it was a new camp, which had total integration of campers; those with special needs were to be integrated in all bunks. I thought about it for a bit, and felt hesitant. It was such a new idea. This would be its first real summer, and it was the first camp to ever try to be fully integrated in that way. I was nervous that I wouldnâ€™t know what to expect, so I told my father that I wasnâ€™t interested.
But as the night went on, I couldnâ€™t stop thinking about it. Something about the idea intrigued me. Finally, about three minutes before the orientation was scheduled to start, I told my father that I had changed my mind. I wanted to find out more. Rolling his eyes and checking his watch, my father told me to get in the car quickly so that we wouldnâ€™t be too late. By the end of the night, I had decided that I was going to give Kaylie a try. I was still nervous, but I knew this was something that I wanted to do.
My first summer at Kaylie was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I had participated in other programs that included kids with special needs before, but Kaylie was different. As a camper in Kaylie, you are not there to do chesed. Youâ€™re not there to be noble, or to give up your summer to help others. In Kaylie, everyone gives, and everyone receives; but mainly, every camper is there to have fun.
I remember one night, I was sitting at dinner, talking with a girl from another bunk. Suddenly, the head staff stood up and announced that there would be a huge concert that night. Normally, I loved concerts. But it had been a long, busy day, and I wasnâ€™t really in the mood for blasting music and wild dancing. Kaylie has a big indoor gym, and I had been planning on hanging out there and playing some basketball that night. Then her counselor told me that the girl would not be able to go to the concert, because there would be strobe lights, which can be overwhelming for kids with sensory sensitivities. After hearing this, I had an idea. I asked if instead of going to the concert, we could hang out together in the gym. The girl sounded excited about the idea, and her counselor said that it was okay. So together we walked, hand in hand, past the thundering concert room and toward the gym.
That night was one of my favorite nights of that summer. We had the gym to ourselves, and we stayed there for hours. Her counselor came and joined in the fun, and we all agreed that this was better than any concert could ever be. That this girl had special needs was irrelevant. We were two girls, shooting hoops, talking and laughing. It was the most normal thing in the world.
These are the times that make Kaylie great. Itâ€™s not the amazing trips or the wild concerts. Itâ€™s not the carnivals, the go-kart track or the ropes course. The most special memories in Kaylie are the little things. Walking together between activities. Lounging around in the bunkhouse on Shabbos afternoon. My most special memories are the ones that seemed so ordinary in the moment; only when I look back after the summer do I appreciate how incredible they are.
Often, when people first hear me talk about Kaylie, they are surprised. â€śThe bunks are fully integrated? And the activities are mixed, too?â€ť When I nod my head, they always ask me: â€śHow does that work? How is it possible?â€ť The answer is that Kaylie simply brings out the best in people. There is such a feeling of mutual respect, acceptance and love between every camper, and it isnâ€™t something to take for granted. Itâ€™s what brought me back for the next two summers after, and itâ€™s why I am so excited to work there as a counselor this coming month. As I sit by my computer, writing this the day before staff orientation, the memories from my past summers keep flooding back.
I have watched Kaylie grow, nearly doubling in numbers every year, and becoming a home away from home for returning campers. It has come so far since that first summer, and so have I. I am proud to have been a camper in Kaylieâ€™s earliest years, and canâ€™t wait to return as a counselor. Rachel Retter is a resident of Bergenfield and a rising senior at Manhattan High School for girls. She was a camper at Camp Kaylie for many years and loved every minute. Rachel will be a counselor at Kaylie this summer.
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