TORONTO — When Yaffi Scheinberg was working toward her degree in education in Israel 10 years ago, she had no idea that working with special needs children would turn into her life’s work.
The program she was enrolled in required her to do community service, and she was placed at a special needs preschool.
“I told the person in charge [of placements] that I don’t do special needs and asked if I could please change my placement,” recalled Scheinberg, co-founder and director of Camp Aim, a summer day program in Toronto for children with conditions such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.
She was encouraged to try it out, despite her apprehensions.
“I fell in love with it and I did it for the whole year, and I came back here and I saw that there was nothing really available for kids in terms of recreation and therapy in the summer. There are great schools, great services during the year, but when it comes to the summer, it can be a big let down for the kids,” said Scheinberg, 28, who returned to Toronto where she obtained a degree in applied behavioural analysis.
“They can go with a shadow to a regular camp and they can watch everyone else play baseball, and they can be in a program that has 45 minutes of free play and colouring, and tantrum their way through it and have someone keeping them safe, but in terms of effectively planning for a child in a wheelchair or a child with autism, there was nothing.”
In 2008, a year after Scheinberg founded Project Aim, a registered charity under which Camp Aim runs, she was approached by a few parents who complained about not having options for summer programs for their children.
That summer, Scheinberg managed to get a group of 10 kids together.
“Camp Aim definitely was born out of a need. It was born out of seeing kids who are doing physiotherapy 10 months a year, and come June, they’re taking too shaky, wobbly steps and the parents know that their kids have to go 10 weeks without any intervention and start again in September from not being able to take any steps,” she said.
The camp, which is subsidized through grants and fundraising initiatives, such as an upcoming gala dinner Nov. 13 at the Park Hyatt in Toronto, runs out of the Beth Jacob girls high school near Lawrence Avenue and Bathurst Street and serves 60 kids ages two to 14 per session on a one-to-one basis. It also includes a four-day overnight retreat at a campground in Burk’s Falls, Ont., near Muskoka.
According to its website, Camp Aim is the only Jewish summer program in the GTA combining therapy and recreation exclusively serving children with special needs.
“We have at least 10 senior staff, a team of about 20 therapists, and equipment from here until the moon,” Scheinberg said, adding that she has ambitions to acquire a permanent home for the camp so she can provide programming year round, rather than rely on community centres and synagogues to provide space for it to operate.
“We have a program infrastructure in place. It’s a physical space that we want. We have beautiful equipment that has been donated or sponsored. We have an incredible sensory room that is worth $15,000. I’m going to have to put that in storage… which is pathetic,” she said.
Galit Levy, who has enrolled her 11-year-old son, Ethan, at the camp for the past six years, explained that her son was born with a rare genetic disorder that affects his fine motor, gross motor and communication skills. She said when she was approached by Scheinberg in 2008 about enrolling her son in Camp Aim, she was unsure at first about whether it would be a good fit.
“Once we tried it, he had physiotherapy, he had [occupational therapy], and these were all physiotherapists who were with him at Zareinu [Educational Centre], so that was our comfort level,” Levy said.
“He’s made such amazing progress in the last few years. I can’t say anything without getting teary-eyed, because I don’t know where we would go without them.”
Scheinberg said many programs in the city open their doors to special needs children in an effort to be inclusive, but many facilitators may not understand the kind of support a special needs child requires.
“I’m not only talking about the kids who are highly aggressive or very low functioning or non-verbal. I’m talking about your typical high functioning ASD, hard-time-regulating type of kid. You try to put them in a regular program, and you tell them you want to do something in a certain order, and they go ballistic,” she said.
Levy said the program has also had benefits for her and the rest of her family.
“It’s given me respite. It’s given me a belief that my child can do anything.”