Over 6-feet-tall and rail-thin, Mark Kimmel-Weingarten towered over the rest of the campers and counselors in the Kulanu summer program. His bangs were dyed orange and he wore a light blue Camp Hillel staff T-shirt and denim shorts. At the Pump It Up center off Washington Avenue in Cedarhurst, he ushered campers to the indoor jungle gym while slyly flirting with a female counselor.
Kimmel-Weingarten, 20, is a junior counselor at the Kulanu summer program. Now in its 10th year, the day camp is part of the regular Kulanu school program that caters to special needs students. It operates as a camp-within-a-camp at the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway’s Hillel Day Camp.
You’d never guess it, but a little less than eight years ago, Kimmel-Weingarten was a poorly behaved student at the Kulanu school. He and the three other junior counselors are all former special needs-students — now helping out with campers that could have been them.
“The lines are blurred here,” said Jonathan Cooper, the silver-haired head of the Kulanu summer program, as he watched the roughly two-dozen campers carousing on an inflatable playground. Cooper came up with the idea of the junior counselors last summer after fielding calls from parents of former Kulanu students whose children who were too old to go attend day camp.
“I wanted kids to learn the value of responsibility,” Cooper explained. “A way to introduce them to work. I didn’t know what these kids would do all summer and a regular camp wouldn’t hold them. I feel responsible.”
Cooper had been involved with Kimmel-Weingarten since he was eight. At 13, Kimmel-Weingarten left Kulanu after exhausting a series of other local special schools. Most school days, he remembered, he didn’t bother showing up to class and when he did, he’d usually sleep through most of them or make it his business to make certain that nothing was taught.
“He’s been searching for meaning,” Cooper said about Kimmel-Weingarten. “He’s had a lot of difficulties.”
Kimmel-Weingarten enrolled as a boarding student in Summit High School in Nyack and officially graduated this past year. He hopes to be accepted to a kosher culinary school and become a professional chef, though since he’s good with his hands he’s also thinking about becoming a carpenter. Relaxed and confident, Kimmel-Weingarten showed no lingering sign of the child he claimed to be.
Kimmel-Weingarten’s mother had approached Cooper for something for her son to do during the summer months. Cooper gave Kimmel-Weingarten an interview and hired him on the spot.
“He knows kids,” Cooper said. “He’s well on his way to becoming a productive member of society. He has energy and focus and I love that he’s making friends. I can count on him.”
Later in the day, when a young female camper, a tiny brunette with pink sunglasses, wandered away, Kimmel-Weingarten carried her back in his arms.
“It teaches you patience,” Kimmel-Weingarten said about the job. “If you want to be a lawyer or doctor, you have to have patience. It’ll help you out.”
Its high-spirited de-facto head counselor, Aaron Weinstein, whose brother is also a junior counselor, generates part of the bunk’s energy.
“We give them what they can handle and then we push them,” he explained about the junior counselors. “You can’t be a camper your entire life.”
The junior counselors usually work in the older division of the Kulanu program where they help out with special needs children above the age of 12; occasionally they also help with the younger division. The junior counselors also assist with the miscellanies of camp life: setting up meals, running activities and making sure campers don’t lose their belongings.
The job gives the junior counselors a light sense of the working world, Cooper feels. A good example occurred when he assigned two junior counselors to set up the lunch at the camp, and one declined. Cooper reminded the young man that he was “being paid to work” and didn’t have a choice in the matter.
Most of the junior counselors don’t find the job too challenging.
“It’s not so hard,” said Ilan Liechtung, 21. A Kulanu graduate, Ilan works as a dog groomer in a local veterinarian’s office. He keeps pictures on his BlackBerry of some of the dogs he’s groomed. His most recent patient was his own dog, Sam, a Golden Doodle, a cross between a golden retriever and a poodle.
When asked about campers who give him trouble, he declined to discuss it.
“That would be lashon hora,” he explained.
“Ilan Liechtung is a fantastic person,” Cooper explained. “I’d trust him with any kid. He follows orders and picks up what counselors don’t. He’s a great asset to our program.”
For Yigal Rosengarten, 19, who is taking classes at Nassau Community College and graduated HAFTR High School two years ago as part of the Kulanu program, working in the bunk is a chance to do something positive for the program that helped him through high school.
“I like to give back to the program,” he said. This is his second year as a junior counselor, and he is having a better time then he did the year before, he said. “I know a lot more and I can offer more to the other counselors,” he said, adding quickly, “I also make more money.”
He wasn’t too fond of high school.
“I didn’t care much for it,” he deadpanned. “I just didn’t think that what’s important in high school, doesn’t apply to the real world: being cool, drinking, [being a] jock. I found people in Kulanu to be more interesting — learning about their disabilities. I am somewhat of a mentor.”
For kids who have been pigeonholed with a disorder the camp is part work and part boys’ club. During their break, two junior counselors played on a Nintendo Wii that was connected to a small television set in the classroom. On the whiteboard was a list of possible trip destinations: Hot Skates, Flushing Meadow Park, and Tanglewood Preserve. The counselors then had an impromptu drawing contest that no one won. Ilan drew two Aztek faces; another counselor drew a super hero (“Fat Man”). Kimmel-Weingarten declined to play, explaining that he was more of a “popsicle artist,” as he tried to get the rest of the counselors and campers involved in an art project that happened to involve popsicle sticks. Midway through the art project, Gerry Hanson, the head of the program and a Kulanu teacher, brought in the sign-up sheet and informed the counselors that they needed to sign in if they wanted to get paid.