West Essex YMCA offers inclusive summer day camp for children with special needs

LIVINGSTON, NJ — Aware of the summer camp conundrum that faces parents who have a child with special needs, the West Essex YMCA has created an integrated program at its Pioneer Trails Day Camp.

The West Essex Y is hiring and training additional camp counselors to give children with special needs support to participate alongside their peers, thanks to a $12,000 grant from the Lisa Beth Gerstman Foundation.

“This gives parents an opportunity to send their child to a mainstream camp experience, where they are able to enjoy all the fun of all the activities, because they have the additional support,” Camp Director Joanne Browne said in a release.

The program is entering its second season at Pioneer Trails Day Camp, which runs for seven weeks at Caldwell University. The Gerstman Foundation, which has been funding inclusive summer camps since 2003, first awarded a grant to the West Essex YMCA last summer.

“I couldn’t imagine a better partner than the Y,” Linda Gerstman, a founder and board member of the foundation named for her late sister, said in the release.

Lisa Gerstman was only 11 when she perished in a bus accident along with six other children on their way to a camp trip in July 1970. Lisa’s love for summer camp inspired her family to establish the foundation in her memory.

“People with special needs can do great things, and this gives children the opportunity to get in the game and make their mark,” Linda Gerstman said. Children without disabilities “get to see that, and I think that helps to chip away at the distance between them.”

Gerstman noted that every dollar donated to the foundation goes to provide summer camp experiences. The foundation supports more than two dozen camp programs in New York and New Jersey.

“The beauty of the Gerstman grant is that it allows us to have this conversation with parents up front, so that we know what support a child needs before they arrive,” said Browne, who is also the West Essex YMCA’s associate director of child care and camp.

In its first year, the initiative served 12 children, with specially trained counselors each overseeing two children with special needs. Children with a range of disabilities participate in tennis, swimming, archery, outdoor and indoor games, performing arts, and much more alongside children without disabilities.

“Children with special needs get the support they need but are also part of the group. It’s a very inclusive, blended program,” Browne said.

The West Essex YMCA also runs an “Everyone Can Play” program for children with disabilities, and a fitness initiative for Livingston School District middle school and high school students with autism.

For more information about the camp and programs, families may call 973-992-7500 or visit westessexymca.org. Families interested in Pioneer Trails Day Camp may also email Browne at JBrowne@metroymcas.org.