This "Special Camp", first started in 1975, originated under the direction of Rev. Saburo and Marion Masada. This couple's daughter who is developmentally disabled, and others like her, needed a camp program designed specifically for their special needs.  Over the years, the ministry of this camp has changed the lives of many people - both conferees and volunteer staff.  JEMS Special Camp continues under the leadership of co-directors Christine Ito and Stephanie Suzuki and a committed core team who have served as Special Camp volunteers in various capacities for many years.


Rev. Sab and Marion Masada

In 1973 the growing awareness of a need to have a camping experience for Asian American developmentally disabled persons and their families came to a head, and Marion and Saburo Masada sought out training events to develop skills and information with the intention of developing a program to serve both the developmentally disabled persons and their families.  Marion conceived the idea of a special camp and support program for these Asian Americans, utilizing an already existing JEMS Family Camp, which the Masadas had been attending for over twenty years.

As their daughter Alisa attended camp each year, she experienced a tremendous boost of identity and comradeship since over a 1000 Asian Americans from all over the United States gathered for the Annual JEMS Conference at the beautiful Mt. Hermon Christian Conference Grounds near Santa Cruz, California.  But as she reached elementary grade levels, she became increasingly reluctant to attend because she could not keep up with the other campers, intellectually nor socially.  Because of this she came to hate attending the activities that were provided at the camp.  Marion realized the hurt and isolation Alisa was going through, and longed for a program geared for campers like Alisa.  But there were none.  No one seemed to know of any other developmentally disabled persons, and certainly not any who would be willing to attend camp.  The traditional problem of families holding back the developmentally disabled son or daughter, is much greater in Asian American families, not simply because of cultural tradition, but also because as a minority, any imperfection was a disadvantage in being accepted by the majority society due to discrimination.

After some difficulty in convincing leaders in allowing the Masadas to embark on this special program to be held concurrently with the regular JEMS Family Camp, only six Asian American special campers could be identified who would be willing to attend.  These six included Alisa, two from the Stockton Residential Facility, and three from the Los Angeles area.  The second year no new special campers could be found to attend.

Due to the tremendous experiences enjoyed by the campers, by the aides who worked with them, by the parents who saw their son or daughter light up, and by the families attending the regular Family Camp, word has gotten around so that this year we accommodate up to 40 special campers assisted by a one-to-one ratio of an outstanding team of volunteers who serve as aides.

Both the special campers and their parents say over and over again how the special campers talk about their camp experience all year and can hardly wait to attend the following year.  One obvious factor we can document is that for the first time these campers had the opportunity to associate with other special campers who looked like them, i.e., Asian.  Most of their year-round associations are not with Asians, and if they are, they do not have the same kinds of disabilities.  The JEMS Special Camp is the only one of its kind that we know of, providing a need that has been overlooked and neglected in the past.

The program of the one-week camp involves inspirational religious and moral education, practical exercises relevant to daily living and socialization, crafts, recreation such as swimming, bowling, exercise, and field games, providing socialization and awareness experiences in informal activities for both Special and College campers (with whom Special Camp shares camp facilities for the week), training sessions for the aides, and one-to-one counseling, socialization, and friendship development between special camper and the aides and staff.

The Staff and aides are almost entirely Asian American in order to provide models that they do not normally have, and also to encourage, develop and train Asian Americans to enter this field of vocation.  Aides have related how they have gone into special education or related work due to their experience with our Special Camp.

The uniqueness of our Program is that it provides a setting that is Asian American, thus encouraging and granting permission for Asian Americans to seek help for family members who have special needs, and also to be affirmed and to offer their talents and gifts to others.  It also stresses developing strong relationships between Staff/Aides and the special camper, so that it is not a baby-sitting relationship, but a development of a lifetime friendship and affirmation of each other.

Special Camp is conducted in conjunction with JEMS College Camp in order to provide the much-needed development of awareness of needs and concerns on both sides.

(Most of the above content was provided by Rev. Sab and Marion Masada, founders of JEMS Special Camp)