Koby Kahan, 7, of Woodmere, came home from camp on July 31 energized by what he and his fellow campers had accomplished.
“It was his first time — he was all excited,” said Koby’s mother, Ilana Kahan. “He told me it was great. He learned to surf. He said, ‘I didn’t just lay down.’ It was so much fun. He loved it.”
Fifteen campers from the Marion & Aaron Gural JCC’s Camp Friendship and their 32 “shadows” — counselors who accompany them through a day’s activities — were in Long Beach that Monday. The campers, children with special needs, received surfing lessons from Surf for All, a Long Beach-based nonprofit that works with young people with developmental disabilities. Campers’ conditions range from attention deficit disorder to autism and Down syndrome.
“Despite the differences, each child is embraced and accepted at Camp Friendship,” said Cathy Byrne, the JCC’s assistant executive director for adults and special needs. “Our shadows are incredible in developing friendships and modeling appropriate behavior. They add life, love and laughter to the lives of our beautiful campers. We do not see disabilities, but emphasize each camper’s capabilities.” Camp Friendship is supported by the Butler Foundation and the Wojnilower Family Foundation.
Stressing what people with special needs can do is the concept behind Surf for All, which was founded by former State Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg — who has a grown developmentally disabled son — and Cliff Skudin, his brother Will, and Jim Mulvaney. The mission is to give children and adults with special needs a chance to learn skills that take them beyond their disability.
“I met Izzy Paskowitz at Reis Park 16 years ago and had the opportunity to do this,” Weisenberg said. “We started with four kids and now have hundreds. There are no barriers in the ocean. It builds self-esteem, puts smiles on their faces and enriches their life.”
Israel “Izzy” Paskowitz, a former world champion longboard surfer, is one of the sons of Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, a renowned California surfer who founded the Paskowitz Surf Camp in 1972. In the decades since, Dorian, his wife, Juliette, and their nine children have given surfing lessons to people of all ages and abilities, as well as those with autism. Dorian died in 2014.
Wendy Kesin has seen her son, Simon, 15, a Camp Friendship veteran, come home excited from the day of surfing for the past 11 summers. “It’s a privilege that our children have this opportunity,” said Kesin, who lives in Hewlett. “When he was younger — around 10 — we found out that he’s a very strong swimmer, so I never felt nervous. The program is very capable and professional.”
Simon, who has high-functioning autism, now interacts well with Camp Friendship counselors, his mother said. “The counselors are fantastic role models, and his age,” she said. “They have fun talking and chilling out all day.”
Evetta Poley, 16, an incoming Hewlett High School junior, who is one of the counselors who shadow assigned campers for everything from swimming at North Woodmere Park to watching movies, said that their charges are very social, and want to establish friendships and have someone to play with.
“We take care of the kids, have a lot of fun and make sure they’re safe,” said Poley, who has been a shadow for three summers. “I’ve learned to be patient with people. Even though we’re different, we’re the same.” The differences, she said, really don’t matter.
One of Poley’s fellow counselors, 14-year-old Seth Katz, is in his first year as a shadow. The incoming Hewlett High freshman said that he, too, has learned patience. “I’ve learned it takes a lot of patience to help the kids interact and socialize,” Seth said. Asked if he would return next summer, he answered emphatically, “Yes, I will. It was very interesting and fun helping.”
“Our goal is to create an inclusive community at camp,” said the JCC’s Byrne, “where each individual is welcomed and accepted despite their differences or level of functioning.”