Special Needs Youth Get the Full Overnight Camp Experience at Nes Harim

Sunday, August 22, 2021 5:07 PM

Meirav Boaz, Vice President of Simcha LaYeled: “There’s a difference between talking about accessibility and actually doing it. This is doing. This is real inclusion.”

KKL-JNF hosts the Simcha LaYeled summer camp for youth with chronic illness and physical disabilities, at its newly-renovated Nes Harim Field and Forest Center, which has been made fully accessible to people with special needs.
A special thank you to Friends of JNF-KKL Germany, whose generous support made this camp possible!
From the thrill of hearing jackals howling throughout the Judean foothills, to the energy of evening dance parties under the stars and the quiet moments of sitting and sharing confidences with a friend on an accessible seating corner under the shade of a tree, the three-day Simcha Layeled overnight camp held at the KKL-JNF Nes Harim Field and Forest Center this summer was, by all accounts, a resounding success.
Forty-eight teens with special needs, mentors, and counselors from Simcha Layeled - an organization dedicated to improving quality of life for children with physical disabilities and chronic conditions, spent a fun-filled three days enjoying the great outdoors at Nes Harim. This year’s retreat was especially meaningful to the happy campers, after having spent more than a year isolated from each other due to COVID-19 restrictions.  The accessible facilities at Nes Harim helped make this reunion possible.
KKL-JNF’s Nes Harim Field and Forest Center is nestled in the green environs of the Judean foothills. Thanks to the accessible paths and lodging facilities, the teens were able to enjoy a camping experience just like anyone else their age – sleeping in cabins, partaking in outdoor challenges and team-building activities, arts and crafts, singing and drumming circles, late night parties and more.
“It’s fun after a year of Corona to be outdoors with others, just enjoying ourselves,” said Topaz Tzedek, aged 20, from Jerusalem, who uses an electric wheelchair. “It is nice to meet up with people. I like to go out but usually can’t go out into nature. Here things are accessible [to me].”
Matan Dadon, 18, of Migdal Ha’emek, who was scooting around on his electric wheelchair, briefly stopped by to share his impressions. Hanging out with him were two Simcha Layeled mentors:  Matan Ifrach, 22, from Ma’alot, and Eldad Elmakais, 21, from Hadera.
“I really love nature and being outdoors,” said Dadon. “But I can’t go to many places. Here, I am like, on vacation.”
Seventeen year-old Liel Salomon, from Or Yehuda, admitted that usually she did not enjoy going to outdoor recreation sites. But, she said, being out in a natural setting with her friends was a whole other story.
“It has been really fun here, I love being here with everyone and I especially like being here with my friends,” she said.
You too, can empower young people with special needs!
Children and youth with special needs just want to have fun in nature, just like other kids their age. Will you help us make it happen?
Noa Roich from Gadera, aged 15, said that she most enjoyed the bonfire the first night, where there was a lot of singing and a song especially dedicated just to her.
“There was singing and guitars and they really spoiled me,” she said. “It is nice here, being able to get around without the need to use stairs.  I love hearing the birds and feeling the wind. This helps us get out of our daily routines and connect with our friends.”
Roich’s mentor, Tahel Damti, 20, from Kriyat Shmuel, said that the opportunity to spend three days together in a fun setting enabled everybody to get know one another better.
“We usually meet in a closed space because not every public space is accessible,” she added. “But here it is accessible to everybody and it has been a lot of fun after a whole year of not meeting with each other.”
Ronni Yavnik, 15, of Rishon LeZion, noted that all the campers had special needs, some of which are physically apparent and others not so, and the accessible grounds and facilities created a unifying experience for all.
“It is good because it is accessible and very comfortable for everybody,” she said.
Gili Maimon, KKL-JNF director of the Nes Harim Field and Forest Center, said the center was excited about hosting the group, as they had recently finished renovating site’s public areas and making them accessible.
“It is a lot of fun to host this group, and we are happy that they are able to enjoy our natural setting through these new accessible paths. I hope there will be more camps like this here. It is always wonderful to see people enjoying nature,” she enthused.
 Meirav Boaz, vice-president of Simcha  Layeled, explained that for many Israeli children with disabilities, the organization is the only opportunity they have to meet peers dealing with similar challenges, and they feel they can let their guard down and be themselves. Boaz noted that often, these children don’t get to go on class trips because the schools think they cannot accommodate their needs.
“There is the accessibility law but there is a difference between talking about it and doing. This is doing. This is real inclusion,” Boaz said. “KKL-JNF understood the difficulties experienced by these youth, who are more immunocompromised, during this year and a half of COVID-19 [restrictions]. As a national organization KKL-JNF is setting an example for other organizations and hospitality groups on the importance of inclusion.”
Boaz noted that there is a lack of outdoor challenge activities available for special needs youth, and that it was important for them to have the opportunity to go out of their comfort zones to try new things and build up their self-confidence and independence.  
Watching the young people enjoying themselves in these green idyllic surroundings, KKL-JNF’s Gili Maimon said she was looking forward to welcoming more special needs groups to Nes Harim in the near future.