May 29, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
May 29, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Camp Deeny Riback’s Otzmot Program Builds Leaders Through Inclusion and Vision

(Courtesy of Camp Deeny Riback) Rocco Nole, 16, sits cross-legged amongst friends and co-workers at JCC MetroWest’s Camp Deeny Riback’s (CDR) amphitheater in Flanders, New Jersey, hair recently bleached and golden, tall and gangly. Rocco is a leader amongst his peers; in only his first year at camp, he was elected co-captain of the red team during Maccabiah. His identical twin brother, Danny, was elected co-captain of the blue team. Together, they are hype men, getting nearly 500 campers riled and ready for a fun day ahead with a hand-clap routine and a round of high-fives, every morning during CDR’s boker tov meeting.

Rocco and Danny are at CDR this summer as part of an inaugural group of young adults enlisted in the Otzmot Specialist Assistant program, allowing those over the age of 16 with special needs the opportunity to work at camp among similarly aged colleagues from a diverse range of abilities, races and religions.

The Otzmot program, taken from the Hebrew root signaling independence, was born out of CDR’s desire to provide opportunities for their Camp Friends campers to become staff alongside their peers. Camp Friends is CDR’s inclusion program in which children with a range of abilities are seamlessly integrated among the camp population, with additional support built into individual camp groups. As campers progress past the age of 16, many of them begin working at camp. Camp Friends participants had the same desire but needed additional support to be successful in this new opportunity.

JCC MetroWest also found that there was a lack of vocational opportunities for individuals with special needs in the greater community and that camp was a great place to offer opportunities for vocational training. With the commitment and generosity of Barbara Drench and the Madeline Drench Special Needs Endowment Fund, as well as the Cooperman Fund for a Jewish Future, CDR’s Otzmot program was able to hire staff who need additional support as full camp staff, earning the same wages as their colleagues, while also providing vocational skills and job coaching in their camp positions.

Mrs. Drench became involved in JCC MetroWest’s special needs programming via her husband, the late Dan Drench, z”l. Mr. Drench was a former board of trustees president of JCC MetroWest and the proprietor of an electronics manufacturing company, where he regularly hired members of the special needs community, long before the Americans with Disabilities Act was approved. Upon Mr. Drench’s passing, Mrs. Drench became the driving force behind the Madeline Drench Endowment Fund, formerly led and financed by her husband, and created to benefit JCC MetroWest. She chose to use the fruits of the endowment towards special needs programming, working hand in hand with JCC MetroWest’s Special Needs Director Marisa Cohen, who brought the idea of the Otzmot program to Mrs. Drench.

Of the program, Mrs. Drench, who recently visited the camp to meet Otzmot participants stated, “I am filled with emotion seeing this program in action. It is a win-win for everyone; for participants, staff and campers. The Otzmot program represents the mainstream normalcy of inclusion and diversity. CDR’s campers will never question those they encounter with disabilities throughout their lives. Otzmot participants are accepted as themselves. I’m so overwhelmed and impressed to see how this program has unfolded. My wish is for the continued success to the point it expands to all entities in our community and beyond.”

According to CDR Director Dana Gottfried, expansion is indeed on the horizon. Currently, the program can accept 10 participants. The goal is to expand to 15 for summer 2023.

Expansion is exciting given the value of the Otzmot program. Participants arrive at CDR and begin their day with camp-wide boker tov, cheering and joining their staff peers in welcoming campers for the day. Immediately thereafter, Otzmot staff gathered for their morning workshop, led by the Otzmot Director Mackenzie Storms, where they worked on job readiness and vocational skills, such as resume writing and interviewing for future employment opportunities.

After the morning workshop has concluded, each Otzmot staff starts their specialist assistant positions around camp. Each participant was placed in a role based on their individual hobbies and passions. The group meets again at 2 p.m. for swim and dismissal. Mackenzie and her assistant Sofia Kerr check in with Otzmot participants throughout the day to ensure each is supported and thriving.

Says Ms. Kerr, “I’ve worked at a lot of other camps and they don’t have anything like this. Camp is such a great learning experience for life and beyond.”

With the help of programs like Otzmot, CDR is building a diverse group of leaders for today and the future. The Otzmot program not only provides value to those staff involved, but to the entire camp community. It’s a beautiful example of how inclusion can enrich an entire community, promoting respect and acceptance of each individual while celebrating the unique gifts each person has to offer.

“I want to be a leader here at Camp Deeny Riback,” Rocco says, and is then gently reminded he already is. He was Maccabiah captain, after all. To which a smile creeps across his face in agreement, and then he’s up and off to start his day.

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles