What was your first job? A foundational memory for many of us. My Grandpa Howie remembers his first job – as a messenger working for United Jewish Appeal during the Six-Day War; he learned that this type of strenuous, physical work was not for him. My Pop-Doc recalls his jobs in college and medical school in construction, as a bellhop and delivering mail: they taught him responsibility and other, varied skills. This summer I had my first job at Camp Ramah in Nyack as a counselor for rising second graders (their age group is called Nitzanim). I think it will be one of the most meaningful experiences of my high school career. Here is why.
Ramah is where I grew up. It’s fifteen minutes from my house and I know many people there. My savta (grandma) told me stories about her work in omanut (art); my aunts and mom worked as counselors. It was not difficult for my parents to send me there as a camper and for me to willingly return. When I decided to work there, I began to think about different types of support I may need. Then I was invited to join a new staff inclusion program at Ramah Nyack. I learned the program would be led by Cortney Kuperman, a teacher and longtime staff member there. I liked that she would be the person who I could direct any concerns I had about my job and my experience.
Most Ramah Nyack counselors live on campus as residential staff. At night, they participate in different educational and recreational activities; they bond as young adults both through the job and the shared living space. As an Edah Assistant (junior counselor), I was not eligible to be a residential staff member, but as the summer went on, I noticed the positive aspects of this program. In the meantime, socializing was difficult for me because I was not residential and I wasn’t as familiar with the people there. I would soon learn that in my position as a commuting counselor, socializing was not a big aspect of my job nor a priority. I soon came to accept that I should take socializing slowly and build relationships with other Nitzanim staff members in the hope that next summer I could have closer connections.
My first day with my campers was on a Wednesday. I quickly understood the incredible energy it took to be a counselor. By lunchtime, I was nearing a breaking point. I felt like I was going to collapse from exhaustion, so I went to Cortney to talk about my options. For the days she was in camp we met in the programming office, which became a comfortable and safe place for me during my lunch break. During days that Cortney was not in camp, I talked with Mel, a Program Director, and people like Assistant Director Ilana Gatoff or Program Director Samara Gotteman. Occasionally, I even talked with Ami, the Camp Director. I was impressed with the running of this specialized program for staff; it was a joint effort between me and Cortney/Mel. If I had a problem, I could come to them without pressure and, if they foresaw a challenge or opportunity coming up, we could discuss it.
During these first weeks, I was unsure if I would stay at Ramah Nyack. As I have discussed before (see Water: An Autistic Journey) heat and specifically sweat is a sensory challenge for me. It is distracting and can exhaust me in the long-term. Therefore, humid and hot days became a challenge and I needed to learn how to cope – by drinking water, finding an appropriate balance between seeking shade and participating in activities, and using breaks appropriately.
During the second week, I came close to quitting because of these challenges. However, a valuable conversation with Cortney helped me realize that I needed to be more flexible with my breaks. While I would continue to take breaks around the same time every day, some days with more exceptional circumstances could lead me to take a longer break or even time off if necessary. For example, one rainy day with incredible humidity led to me taking a longer morning break and leaving an hour earlier. This was also for my health, because of a medical condition that leads me to sweat more than the average person. I struggled to keep up with my hydration level. This led to severe headaches and trouble breathing. I made the right decision that day. Meanwhile, two days that summer were extended days ending around 5:30 p.m. instead of 3:30 p.m., which led me to take an extra break in the afternoon.
Autism was not a hindrance to being a counselor; it meant that I was able to be a unique counselor. I quickly realized that these sensory challenges were a great asset. I loved getting in the pool. Compared to many counselors who felt that getting in the pool was a chore, it became a ritual part of my day and an asset to my bunk. While my co-counselors could relax during free and instructional swims, I would get in the pool twice a day. Once, for a free swim, and the second time, to shadow one of my kids (for medical reasons) for instructional swim. As one former rosh edah (division head) told me, joining the kids in the pool isn’t just a good way to cool down, it is an excellent way to connect with them. Over the summer, I played tag or Marco Polo, or hide and seek with all of my kids. One kid encouraged me to jump in the red zone (deep end) every day. It became a ritual that not only kids in my own bunk enjoyed but all of Nitzanim.
Now there were some other challenges that came my way. Like any first-year counselor, I needed to develop discipline, communication, and relationship skills. I also learned how to feel comfortable and successful participating in activities. While apprehensive about migrash dancing (when the whole camp dances on the large field, an integral part of Ramah culture) at the start of the summer, I eventually settled into dancing for a few minutes every morning.
Other than energy levels, my biggest challenge was the downside of my heightened sensitivity to sensory inputs (specifically heat and sweat). First, I realized why I had nearly collapsed during lunch on the first day. It was sensory overload, which is when someone is overwhelmed by strong sensory inputs. The odors of the food and the loud noises of the enclosed dining hall made it hard to react and serve my kids. Because of this concern, and the fact that lunch came during an ideal time of day to take a break, it made sense that lunch would serve the purpose of a break for me. I also experienced sensory overload during rain storms. One particular storm was incredibly intense (Ramah Nyack counselors and campers know which one I am talking about!). Staff underestimated the severity of the storm and placed Nitzanim in a tent. With thunder, lightning, and a screaming horde of one hundred campers, it is not surprising that I had sensory overload; I am glad I was able to cope with it and leave before it got worse. There is a lot more I want to reflect on when it comes to this incident, so I will be writing a separate blog on it…coming soon.
As is apparent for long-time followers of my Matan and non-Matan blog posts, I am very open about my Autistic identity. Over the summer, I had numerous opportunities to share my experience with my coworkers/counselors. I helped book-end an inclusion training during staff week. I had conversations with my co-counselors (in my bunk) about my strengths and challenges; in fact, this led to all of us being open about taking breaks. Toward the end of the summer, I hosted a Limmud (learning session offered to residential staff) after camp. In all of these opportunities, I was able to see and hear the desire for inclusion and understanding held by people my age, giving me hope for the future.
What did I take away from my first job? First, it is important for me to continue to develop my self-advocacy skills and a deep understanding of “what makes me tick”, especially my energy levels and sensory overload. I also developed important job skills such as communication, listening to others, and dealing with burnout. I learned that I am surprisingly good with children and that I am actually excited to come back next summer. Being residential staff the next summer was in the rear-view mirror (driving pun, get ready for my reflections on that) at the beginning of the summer but as I heard more about it, I decided that being residential staff was going to be a priority for me next summer. I am already arranging talks with people about what that could look like. It’s a big step, but I think I am ready for it.
My final reflection is that I am no longer seen as a child, at least by other children. I realized this one day as I helped care for a camper who got a nasty bee sting by the pool. He counted on me for emotional comfort as he had the stinger removed. This reminded me of the moments when my counselors comforted me when I was stressed. In Kochavim (entering Kindergarten) when I was nervous for Festivale (the campwide dancing performance), my counselor Rachel prepared me for this event and even had me ride on her back. And in Solelim (entering 3rd grade) I remember how my counselor Max listened and worked with me as I worked through my father’s death. It is meaningful that I can have a similar impact on other kids’ lives. The butterfly effect says that one small action can change countless lives. My counselors coaching me for Festivale or discussing grief with me had a much larger impact than just on myself. It led to me returning, making a change in other kids’ lives and perhaps them returning as well to fulfill this important cycle of giving back – with kindness, empathy, understanding, and acceptance.