By Renee Ghert-Zand
At the end of every summer, Camp Ramah Darom in Clayton, GA turns into Camp Yofi, where children with autism and their families can enjoy a week of Jewish camping fun and relaxation.
“For our family, Camp Yofi at Ramah Darom is an oasis,” said Melissa Ringold, a single mother of two special needs children from Pittsburgh, PA. “During our time at Camp Yofi, all we have to focus on is having fun. There are no goals, no therapies, no standards to meet. There is simply acceptance of each individual for who they are, for the joy each brings.”
The camp program is designed for families with children with autism between the ages of 6 and 13, and the one-to-one staff-camper ratio ensures a high level of attention and safety. The schedule at Camp Yofi is organized so that family members (including parents, siblings, and grandparents) spend time both together and apart over the course of the week.
“Some of the families who join us at camp have not taken any other vacation since their kids were born,” said Sheri Baker, director of marketing and communications at Ramah Darom. Thanks to grants and donations, Camp Yofi tuition is only $750 per family.
As special education doctoral programs and special needs teachers in Jewish schools, Camp Yofi staff members are aware of the sensory needs and communication differences of children with autism, and also of the need for routine and structure to be embedded in their day.
“At Yofi, every single moment of the day and night, is structured to make sure that every participant is safe and happy,” says Ringold. “The supervised playrooms after meals, allowing adults to finish eating and even have a conversation, are a blessing.”
Camp Ramah has led the way in special needs Jewish camping since 1970, and Camp Yofi is one of 14 Ramah programs for campers with disabilities nationwide. For many families, attending Camp Yofi is the first opportunity they’ve had to be part of a Jewish community. Some children with autism, even non-verbal ones, have had their b’nai mitzvah ceremonies at camp.
For these families, Camp Yofi is a much welcome summer respite from the year-round challenges they face. “It feels as if a world has been created that perfectly fits our kids with autism, rather than trying so desperately hard to have our kids with autism fit into the world,” says Ringold.
Registration is underway for this year’s Camp Yofi, August 6-10, 2014, at ramahdarom.org/programs/camp-yofi. •