It never rains at Camp Simcha.
Other strange phenomena abound: Soda cans and juice bottles come rolling down the chutes of brightly colored machines without benefit of paper or coin and, most amazing of all -- the camp chef not only can cook, he fills individual orders.
Okay... sometimes it rains -- but when it does, no one seems to notice or care very much. This is Camp Simcha, after all, a summer retreat where campers -- Jewish children with cancer and other life threatening illnesses -- tend to check their negativity at the gate. Here, time and energy are better spent on getting back to the business of being a "regular kid" -- a standing commonly forfeited in the relentless round of stressful doctor visits, dismal hospital stays and debilitating treatment protocols.
"For three weeks, these kids can forget about being patients and concentrate on being campers," says camp director Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg.
The only kosher camp for children with cancer in the United States, Camp Simcha -- simcha is the Hebrew word for happiness --is a project of Chai Lifeline, an international nonprofit social service agency that provides a broad array of free health support services to catastrophically ill Jewish children and their families. The camp, located on 125 acres in Glen Spey, New York, currently accommodates up to 100 children in each of two three-week sessions.
Though the administration and staff of the camp are all Orthodox Jews, campers come from widely diverse Jewish affiliations and levels of observance. They range in age from five to twenty and hail from cities across the United States and around the world. Indeed, it would seem the only thing Simcha campers have in common is the fact of their life threatening illnesses.
Which appears to be quite enough.
"The relationships that develop among the campers go beyond anything experienced at a regular camp," observes Rabbi Goldberg. Even their different religious affiliations present no barrier to friendship, he says. "At Camp Simcha, youngsters from every point on the Jewish spectrum live and play together happily. It’s unfortunate that the common denominator that bought them together is illness."
"No one here feels different or out of place," says staff member Yitzy Haber who was himself a camper for six years. Diagnosed at age 11 with osteogenicsacoma, a type of bone cancer, Yitzy remembers well what it was like to finally come to a place "where no one asked any questions or stared if you didn’t happen to have any hair. Camp was like a dose of normality for me. I just thought it was the greatest place on earth. I still think so."
Diagnosed two years ago with Hodgkin’s disease, seventeen-year-old Matis says he relates differently to the kids here than to his other friends. "What we have in common is more important than anything -- our ages or backgrounds. We really understand each other."
On a gut level, if not always a linguistic one. Camp Simcha -- completely free of charge, right down to the cost of transportation -- is this season hosting dozens of children from Israel and four from Russia. While each non-English speaking camper was assigned a counselor fluent in his or her language -- Camp Simcha maintains a one-to-one camper to counselor ratio, two to one when medically necessary -- verbal communication among the campers is sometimes a challenge.
"One evening after dinner I walked into the camp dining room and found three girls at a table trying to come up with a camp cheer, " says assistant camp director Zahava Farbman. "The only problem was none of them spoke the same language -- one was from Israel, a second from Russia and a third from the States. Amazingly, they managed to come up with a pretty good one."
Camp Simcha’s medical staff, under the direction of Dr. Peter Steinherz of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, includes doctors, nurses, social workers and a physical therapist. Yet, to the casual visitor -- were such visitors allowed; since many of the children are immunosuppressed, visiting is generally discouraged -- Camp Simcha would seem much like any other summer camp. Chemotherapy is administered with no more fanfare than cough syrup. An ambulance, for scheduled as well as unscheduled visits to New York City hospitals, is parked out of sight across the road from the main campus. A helicopter is on call five minutes away.
Other accommodations necessary for the health and safety of the campers are woven right into the fabric of the camp. There are plenty of shade trees to shield the kids’ sensitive skin and ubiquitous free juice stations and soda machines encourage the kids to keep drinking. At meals -- specially prepared to appeal to children whose appetites may be suppressed due to medical treatment -- individual orders are cheerfully filled.
For 18-year-old Denis of Moscow, who has leukemia, that’s meant french fries three times a day, every day since arriving at camp.
"Anything that makes a kid happy and is not inconsistent with his medical needs, we’ll provide," says Chai Lifeline’s executive vice president Rabbi Simcha Scholar. "Camp Simcha is one place where sick children can pretty much count on things going their way." The mere prospect of returning to camp each summer, he adds, is a morale booster that helps many of the kids get through difficult times throughout the rest of the year.
Eight-year-old Grisha, also from Moscow, says he plans to keep coming back to camp "until I’m a very old man." Grisha, who lost his right eye to cancer, wear a prosthesis that has to be removed and thoroughly washed each morning in the camp infirmary. But that’s a minor inconvenience in a day that’s otherwise filled with such activities as swimming, boating, rocketry and drama. Woodworking, crafts and pottery shops, as well as a state-of-the-art computer room, are open and staffed all day to accommodate campers unable to participate in any scheduled activity. Music and dance are integral parts of the camp program, and every summer the camp holds several concerts starring popular Jewish entertainers. On New York Day, campers visit the Big Apple -- an excursion made even more exciting for the kids this year by the surprise appearance of Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert who joined them aboard Manhattan’s Circle Line cruise ship.
"Considering the kids’ medical needs and limitations, this broad a range of activities simply wouldn’t be possible in a regular camp," says Rabbi Goldberg. In addition to his duties as camp director, Rabbi Goldberg teaches campers karate, which he believes strengthens them mentally as well as physically. "Kids often come to camp looking beaten down, like they’ve been through a war. Karate gives them a sense of empowerment that’s tremendously beneficial in helping them fight their illnesses."
The change that comes over kids at camp can be quite remarkable, says Esther Schwartz. In her work as Chai Lifeline’s program director, Mrs. Schwartz interacts daily with seriously ill children and their families, both in and out of the hospital. It is often at her recommendation that a kid attends camp for the first time. "I’ve seen it happen more times than I can count. Children so badly depressed they’ll barely look at you get to camp, and they’re totally transformed."
Her favorite story is about six-year-old Mirile. Suffering from a rare blood disorder, Mirile had been in the hospital for weeks. Her condition was extremely serious, but more immediately worrisome to her doctor and family was the fact that she had stopped talking and eating. Mrs. Schwartz’s suggestion that Mirile go to camp, if only for a few days, was initially rejected by the child’s doctor. But he called her back a few days later and agreed to give it a try.
"Mirile arrived at camp on Friday," Mrs. Schwartz recalls. "When I came to visit on Sunday, I headed straight for the infirmary to check on her. But she wasn’t there. I finally found her outside, at a camp barbecue, eating a huge hamburger.
"‘Mirile,’ I said ‘what are you eating?’
"‘My second burger,’ she told me.’
"‘But when I saw you in the hospital on Wednesday, you didn’t want to eat anything."
"She turned the biggest, bluest eyes you can imagine on me.
"‘Esther,’ she said, ‘on Wednesday I was sick. Today, I’m at camp’."
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Chanie Friedman, part of Am Echad’s writers’ pool, has written several Jewish children’s books and numerous feature articles in a variety of publications]
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