(lubavitch.com) It’s hard for the average kid to be in two places at once. But Ari Cohen is not your average kid. Last summer, the spunky six-year old became a favorite of 83 Gan Israel day camps around the world. This year, he hopes to make even more friends.
Cohen was born with Trisomy 9 Mosaic, a rare chromosomal disorder. Most babies born with this syndrome do not survive their first birthday. Yet Ari, who struggles with even the most basic of tasks, has thrived beyond anyone’s expectations. Even so, he doesn’t speak, is not toilet-trained, and has difficulty focusing.
But despite his disabilities, Leah Cohen was determined to give her son the Gan Israel experience. “Ari is in public school all year,” says his mother, “and camp is his one chance to be together with other kids in a fun, Jewish environment.” Mrs. Cohen found her son a camp, Gan Israel of Boca Raton, Florida, and the indispensable shadow to accompany him there.
And that is when she realized just how much camp meant to her son.
“We were sitting in the playroom Shabbos morning when Ari started singing ‘Torah Tziva’ with all the motions. It was unbelievable to see.”
Mrs. Cohen resolved to involve her son in as many camps as she could. She sent an email requesting that camps send Ari their colorful t-shirts. The response was fast and much greater than she could have ever hoped for.
Campers in Arizona sent Ari water guns (their favorite activity), arts and crafts, and of course, a t-shirt. Chabad of Port Washington, New York mailed the entire Cohen family (including grandparents) matching camp shirts. Campers from Winnipeg sent a cap via personal delivery. Some campers decorated the t-shirts they sent, others wrote letters to Ari, and some packages arrived with treats.
As the summer progressed, Ari knew to expect packages, sometimes as many as four a day. When he saw the familiar manila envelope or box, he quickly peeled off his own shirt and put on his newest addition. Deliveries came from England, France, Canada, South America, and across the United States.
One of the first camps to reply was Gan Israel of Hong Kong. As part of the camp’s “Cool to be Kind” program, Mrs. Goldie Avtzon introduced the camp’s 85 kids to their newest friend, Ari from Florida. Together, the campers constructed a huge, multi-layered bundle for Pass the Parcel (unbeknownst to them, Ari’s favorite game). Between the layers was a photo of each child, holding Ari’s picture. Inside all the wrappings was an orange t-shirt and kippah. An accompanying stuffed sheep, which the kids made, says “we love you Ari” when squeezed.
“It made me speechless to see the response,” says Mrs. Cohen. “Everyone got together for Ari, for a boy who really needed it, for a mother, father, and sister who really needed this. We live in a world of doctors, appointments, tests; this helped us realize how far people will go to show they care about a fellow Jew.”
“It was a relatively small effort to make a little boy happy,” says Rabbi Chaim Greisman of Stockholm, Sweden. His camp of 60 kids also includes children with special needs, because, Greisman says, “every Jewish kid has the right to a Jewish environment like Camp Gan Israel.”
“My life is helping Jews,” says his colleague, Rabbi Reuven Cohen of Leeds, England who sent Ari a bright red shirt. “I am a youth director so of course his story tugged right at my heartstrings.”
As summer gave way to fall, and camps closed their doors for the season, the deliveries stopped coming. But to this day, the Cohens have all the packaging and presents Ari received. Ari looks at the pictures and letters regularly. One drawer in his room is stuffed with camp shirts; he wears a different one each day.
One of those t-shirts is from Chandler, Arizona. “Our staff and campers immediately jumped at the idea,” recalls Rabbi Mendy Deitsch. “And it is interesting, because the kids are still talking about it this year. They felt that they are not only having fun, but helping another child in a different state enjoy camp. They love camp and wanted to share that experience.”
Things are heating up again and Gan Israels have not forgotten their special friend. “All the kids in camp remembered Ari,” says Avtzon, “and they wanted to do something for him again this year.” A package recently arrived in Boca Raton with a hand-decorated siddur—a present that Ari was excited to receive as he has just mastered the Hebrew letters of his name. The letters, “Aleph,” “Raish,” and “Yud,” were drawn and applied to the cover of his new prayer book by his Hong Kong friends.
Other camps around the world are planning to reignite their friendships with Ari this summer. And Ari, now a proud camper of Gan Israel of Parkland, would love to come home to find an envelope with his name on it.