Interview: Beth Mitchell of JCC of Central NJDecember 12, 2023
The Inclusion and Support Services department at JCC of Central NJ consists of Beth Mitchell, Director of Inclusion and Diversity, and Stephanie Weiss, Inclusion and Support Services Coordinator.
We interviewed Beth about how they’re working to ensure that all children can participate in JCC’s programming – and how their organization is adapting to address the youth mental health crisis.
What differences are you noticing today between young children entering your early childhood classes today and previous years’ students?
We are seeing sweeping delays in the acquisition of children’s developmental milestones, gaps in their social skills and a decrease in their ability to self-regulate their bodies and emotions. During the Covid-19 pandemic many children missed out on typical child-based group experiences like playdates, community classes or in-person socialization. The end result is a complex set of clinical diagnoses that negatively impact a child’s ability to access and participate in their learning.
The ripple effect of these challenges are wide reaching. Parents in this post-Covid generation are struggling to meet the increasingly complex needs of their children while balancing their careers and attending to their own mental health and wellness. The teachers serving our children are working hard to understand and support these complex needs.
What are the most common forms of disability – both mental and physical – that you and your colleagues support? Has the mix changed?
While the diagnoses of our pediatric population have not significantly changed over the past few years, we have noticed a marked increase in the number of children that require additional supports to be successful in our programs. Since Covid-19, the Early Childhood caseload has increased by an alarming 15%. We have also noticed a significant uptick in social-emotional and mental health needs in young children, primarily around anxiety and coping mechanisms.
Disability is a spectrum. Some of the children we support have formal diagnoses like Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, Receptive and Expressive Language Delay, Cerebral Palsy, Selective Mutism, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, etc. Other children are in the process of being evaluated for a diagnosis and many children we support do not have a formal diagnosis but display a higher level of need as compared to their peers.
Tell us about the Inclusion and Support Services department at JCC of Central Jersey.
The Inclusion and Support Services department was created to reduce barriers to participation and to extend a wholehearted welcome to anyone who wants to be a part of our community. With extending this welcome comes the responsibility of weaving in accommodations so that our campus is barrier-free and our programs equally inclusive so that everyone can meaningfully participate with success and dignity. Our goal is to inspire our community, and the community at large, to create a space of true belonging for people of all abilities, backgrounds, denominations, gender identity and religious affiliations. We believe inclusion is an attitude, not an activity.
How has JCC of Central Jersey’s summer camp – Camp Yachad – adapted to meet the evolving mental health needs of campers, counselors, and their families?
At Camp Yachad, the definition of inclusion has expanded in recent years into a more holistic model where we recognize and care for the needs of our entire camp community. Our former model of the “Shadow Program” which provided 1:1 support staff to campers with disabilities has evolved into a full-blown “Camper Care Team.” This coordinated care team includes myself, Stephanie Weiss (our Inclusion and Support Services Coordinator) a Shadow Program Director, a Skills Training Program Director and our camp Social Worker – a position that was generously funded by the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey in 2022. Our nursing staff rounds out the Camper Care Team.
In addition to growing our Camper Care Team, we have professionalized our processes and offer accommodations and supports to any camper or staff in need, including social-emotional learning opportunities for every camper and staff in partnership with our Social Worker
How has HFNJ’s $94,950 grant impacted your work and made a difference for the community you serve?
The Inclusion and Support Services department is a mission-driven department which generates minimal income in a not-for-profit agency. From a financial lens, this generous grant support from The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey has allowed us to hire Stephanie Weiss without impacting our bottom line which uses every dollar to support our programs and services. The expense would have been outside of our operating budget. From an impact lens, Stephanie’s hire has been critical to support both the infrastructure of this department and in providing the hands-on support that the children, staff and parents in our community need.
Addressing our potential readers – what more can ALL OF US do to ensure the full and complete inclusion of those with different abilities and backgrounds in our society?
Everyone can find a way to be more inclusive. Open your ears to hearing the lived experiences of others. Open your heart to care more deeply for those around you who need care. Open your mind to welcome the idea that everyone can participate meaningfully in some way. And open your eyes to see the many opportunities for inclusion in your own life and community. Where you see opportunity, participate. Where you see gaps, create opportunity.