This summer, Sandy Sewell reunited with her dear friend Ellen Spergel, who she met at “Camp Jawonio” back in the early 1960’s. Ellen was a counselor for one summer right before college, and Sandy was a camper. They got reacquainted years later in the 1970’s when Sandy reached out to the Rockland Community College Occupational Therapy Program as an advocate, and Ellen was a teacher there! The two eventually began teaching together, sharing their personal and professional knowledge about caring for people with disabilities in the most compassionate and dignified manner. Jawonio was able to meet and talk with Ellen, to hear more about her story:
Jawonio: When and how did you and Sandy first meet?
Ellen: It was the summer of 1960 or ’61. I was at Camp Jawonio to learn about the different rehab health professions that I thought I might enter after college. I was especially interested in Occupational and Physical Therapy.
J: What were your first impressions of Camp Jawonio and the campers?
E: I thought the place was amazing–so many opportunities for the campers with disabilities that I had never seen before. I worried I would not be up to the task!
J: As a counselor, what were you required to do?
E: Everything the campers needed during the day and night. Dressing, grooming, toileting, feeding, assistance with participating in all camp activities, and creating the fun that all the children deserve
from a camping experience.
Jawonio: What are some of the memorable experiences you had?
Ellen: Swimming with the children in the wheelchair accessible pool. I was struck with how much more mobility they had in the water and how much they enjoyed it–and I enjoyed it also. It was freedom from the limitations gravity imposed that really struck me.
J: What challenged you the most?
E: Keeping the goals of independence and normalcy for the campers when my first (uneducated response) was to offer too much help. I have continued to learn that lesson all of my professional life.
Jawonio: Tell us about the friendships you formed at Camp Jawonio!
Ellen: Sandy really stands out in my memory as a bright, articulate, friendly, and open leader of the older girl’s group. She was most helpful to me as I adjusted to the levels of disability and the need for the close physical and personal contact many campers needed. Thank goodness the girls had girl counselors and boys had boy counselors. I knew no one, and I had never gone to sleep away camp as a youngster. But the adult supervisors and more experienced counselors were a tremendous support, and it did not take long to feel like I belonged. I was helpful and I was learning! Sandy was excellent at explaining what she needed, and she also looked after the well-being of the other campers. Sandy was the senior camper authority in our eyes, and we looked to her for guidance. She was a generous support, a skilled teacher and most caring.
J: Did your friendship continue after camp?
E: Not initially. With college, the Vietnam War, marriage, and career development taking all my attention it was hard to stay connected. But we eventually did reconnect in the 70s when Sandy called Rockland Community College and got me instead! The reunion was wonderful and it has lasted all these years. We became a team, teaching together, colleagues in the disability rights movement and friends.
Ellen is now retired and lives with her husband, Ron in Orange County, NY. They volunteer as Master Gardeners at a school in the East Ramapo School District and have established an organic edible garden and nature enrichment program.