|From left, D.J., Susan, and Danny Newman stand outside the room they dedicated in Steven Newman’s memory. YONATAN SKLAR|
Steven Newman was just 17 1/2 when he died unexpectedly in his sleep last summer at Camp HASC, the Catskill Mountains summer program of the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. The disabled Teaneck resident had been a HASC camper for nine years.
His parents, Susan and Danny, and brother D.J., 16, went to the camp July 5 to dedicate the Steven Newman Musical & Sensory Program.
Susan Newman said they had visited Steven the morning before his death. “He went to an Uncle Moishy concert at camp that night and had a great time, and then he went to sleep and didn’t wake up,” she added.
Josh Salmon, one of Steven’s former counselors, called the Newmans right after the seven-day mourning period. “He said that he and three other counselors had an idea to create a music program in our son’s memory because Steven adored music,” Susan Newman said. “I thought it was a wonderful idea.”
Salmon, along with fellow HASC staff alumni and the Newman family, started a campaign that raised more than $100,000 – much of it from the Teaneck community.
Soon after the campaign got under way, it was decided to expand the original concept to include a Snoezelen room, a controlled multi-sensory stimulation environment for people with mental disabilities. These rooms are designed to deliver stimuli using lighting effects, color, sounds, music, and scents.
Dr. Stephen Glicksman, Camp HASC’s developmental psychologist, had wanted to add a Snoezelen room to the camp’s facilities ever since he visited one 10 years ago at Shalva, the Association for Mentally & Physically Challenged Children in Israel.
Glicksman explained that for campers who cannot partake of the usual outlets for recreation and entertainment, Snoezelen rooms provide a controlled, relaxing sensory experience on demand. He worked with Hasbrouck Heights-based Flaghouse, Inc., to custom-design the room for HASC.
“The room was created specifically for those most significantly challenged, who would get overwhelmed at a ball game or a circus, and who have difficulty managing an influx of sensations but can experience these things in a soothing environment,” said Glicksman.
“Though there are some therapeutic advantages to a multi-sensory room, the main thrust is simply recreation, most of which in mainstream society our campers cannot avail themselves of,” he said. The room can accommodate up to two bunks at a time, or up to 16 people. HASC hosts about 300 child and adult campers each summer.
Rabbi Avi Pollak, head counselor for the boys campus, said there has been a growing need for such a center, particularly for those with autism-spectrum disorders for whom traditional camp activities are not sufficient.
“Some simply get the experience of being surrounded by a sense of comfort, while others can be more interactive,” Glicksman said. “For instance, there is a six-foot-high bubble tube filled with water and colored bubbles going upward. Just watching is calming for some. Others can learn cause and effect by pressing a button to change the colors or speed, or verbally identify the colors.”
Camp HASC spokesman Grant Silverstein said some campers use the sound and light wall to work on vocalization skills. “A tactile response panel allows the children to make music, while fiber optic displays provide a sensory experience unlike any that our children have ever known,” Silverstein said. “Campers in wheelchairs sit up a little straighter or stretch themselves out in a suspended leaf chair or inside our ball bath; campers with visual impairments open their eyes a little wider; campers with tactile defensiveness become a little more trusting; and campers with respiratory issues breathe a little easier in the room.”
The music area next to the Snoezelen room provided a way for Camp HASC to centralize and expand its existing music program.
“We have a guitarist and a keyboardist on staff, and a lot of adaptive music equipment such as giant drum that 12 campers can sit around and bang on together,” said Pollak. “Now we have been able to create a more comprehensive program that has allowed another tier of our campers to enjoy the full experience of camp in the same way that Stevie did.”
Glicksman agreed that the program is a particularly fitting tribute to Steven Newman, who was known as “Stevie” at HASC. “He did bring a lot of light to the camp and staffers,” said Glicksman, who also worded the memorial plaque that hangs over the center.
“Steven was a really happy kid,” said his mother, who did not realize until after his death that the initials of his Hebrew name, Shmuel Menachem Chaim, spell “samayach,” the word for joy. “He was always friendly and laughing, introducing himself to everybody and introducing everybody to each other.”
A student at the Bleshman School in Paramus, Steven had enjoyed Shabbat youth groups at Cong. Rinat Yisrael for six years with the assistance of personal “shadows” Yaacov Rubin and Cory Fuchs. His various HASC counselors – who work with campers one on one – also became close with him.
Aaron Fleksher of Passaic, Steven’s final counselor, was the one who found him after he had died. “Aaron gave him such love and we can’t thank him enough,” said Newman. At the same time, she added, “Steven touched so many people in his short life, and many people told us they got more from him than they could give to him.”