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,’’ said Camp Director Joanne Browne.

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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 in the summer of 2015.

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

Lisa Gerstman was only 11 years old 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,” said Linda Gerstman. Children without disabilities “get to see that, and I think that helps to chip away at the distance between them.”

Gerstman also 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,’’ said Browne.

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.

TAPinto Livingston, TAPinto West Essex and TAPinto West Orange are proud to highlight one of their sponsors this week, The West Essex YMCA.

TAPinto thanks The West Essex YMCA for its continuing support to help us deliver important news to the residents of this community on a daily basis. Because of sponsors like The West Essex YMCA, TAPinto is completely free to subscribers.

To learn more about becoming a sponsor of TAPinto, contact Jackie Schatell at (201) 618-7444.