Seeing children as children – not labels – despite their enormous challenges
By Ilan Preskovsky
Based on the ideals of “inclusion, community, fun”, Shutaf is an Israeli organisation, based in Jerusalem, which is perhaps best known for bringing the American institution of summer camps to Israeli children and teenagers – both for children with and without special needs, but catering specifically to children with physical, developmental, or emotional disabilities.
As its co-founder and co-director, Beth Steinberg, is quick to stress, this isn’t a “special needs” camp where children are seen as their diagnoses rather than as individuals, but is a camp for all, which also happens to cater to the specific needs of the different children that attend. It’s about creating an environment of inclusion where different children can see beyond the labels attached to them – be it by society or even doctors and mental health professionals – and join together in an experience that is as rewarding as it is good, old-fashioned fun.
Shutaf is far more than its acclaimed camps, though. It’s a multi-faceted organisation that offers year-round programmes to Israeli youth that aim to create a sense of community between them, that, like Camp Shutaf itself, is all about promoting a society of inclusion for those children who, because of the circumstances of their birth, all too often “fall between the cracks”. It’s about giving children without disabilities the chance to interact and even become friends with children who are often stigmatised by their diagnoses, while allowing children with disabilities the chance to be more fully integrated and accepted into a wider society. Along with its summer camps, Shutaf offers day camps during Pesach and August holidays; numerous after-school activities; a Young Leadership Programme for teenagers and young adults; family gatherings; and inclusion-education workshops.
It’s an organisation that has come a long way since its very humble beginnings just a few years ago. Steinberg and fellow co-founder and co-director Miriam Avraham first met through Steinberg’s sister when they were both living in America and formed a connection based, at least in part, on a common love for the summer camps they attended in the greater New York area and in the challenges of raising kids with disabilities. Upon making Aliyah, however, both Steinberg and Avraham were confronted with a reality that took them by surprise. Opportunities for children with disabilities were fairly limited beyond formal schooling, and genuine inclusion programmes even more so, with a serious lack of options for their children during school holidays. “We were tired of being told ‘no’,” as Steinberg puts it and, despite not having worked in this particular area, the two friends drew from their years of experience at camp and put something together for children with varying levels of disability in the summer of 2007. What started off as an ad hoc camp for less than a dozen kids of friends and family blossomed over the next decade into an extensive and multi-pronged organisation for some 250 kids and counting.
Shutaf is helmed by a capable, paid staff of usually post-army young adults – including some studying education and related fields at university – to offer the best and highly individualised service to the diverse group of children who attend its various programmes and camps. Though Shutaf doesn’t cater for the needs of the extremely disabled (those who would need intensive, round-the-clock psychiatric and medical care), they pride themselves on being able to offer a fun, meaningful, and enriching experience, one that is personalised to the needs of each individual child in its care.
This inevitably means that Shutaf needs a fair amount of funds to fully fulfil what it sets out to do. Because of the particularity of what Shutaf does it only receives a small amount of money from the government, so it’s forced to rely almost entirely on donations from both organisations and individuals. With an estimated 200 000 Israeli children dealing with some sort of disability, its work could hardly be more valuable and worthwhile.
To find out more about this incredible organisation, visit: www.campshutaf.org.