Jewish camps for kids with cancer take extraordinary precautions this summer to protect campers’ health – The Forward
Thanks to Camp Simcha
A Camp Simcha camper and counselor.
As the pandemic eases, Jewish camps across the country are taking precautions against COVID-19 and have opened for a largely normal summer. But camps serving children with chronic illnesses and disabilities, who may be particularly vulnerable to COVID, have had to be extremely careful to protect their campers — even if it means delaying opening for another year.
Camp Simcha, which operates a sleeper camp for boys with cancer on 125 acres in the Catskill Mountains in Glen Spey, NY, remains closed to keep campers safe. Instead, Camp Simcha will hold a day camp in seven cities in the US and Israel.
“During COVID, we have taken a turn to continue to meet the needs of our children and their families,” said Matt Yaniv, chief marketing officer for Chai Lifeline, which funds Camp Simcha.
In response to the pandemic, Camp Simcha first launched the day camps last year to temporarily replace the dormitory camp experience. Called Camp Simcha Without Borders, it opened in Miami on June 28 this year and will open later in the summer in Chicago, Baltimore, Lakewood, NJ, Los Angeles, Israel, and Deal, NJ for both children with cancer and those with chronic illness. or disabilities. There will be two week-long sessions at each location – one week for girls and one week for boys.
Although Camp Simcha has canceled the boys’ sleep camp, a shortened sleep camp for girls with cancer will still be held. Instead of running for two weeks, it is held for about 30 girls over an extended weekend in August. A full medical team will be on site with an advanced medical facility and an oncology team, and each girl will be assigned her own counselor.
Camps for children with cancer and other health problems offer the chance to fit in and have fun in ways they couldn’t anywhere else. Rivka Buchbinder, 23, a three-time cancer survivor from Minnesota who spent 10 years as a camper at Camp Simcha, remembered bonding with other campers as soon as she arrived.
“The rest of the year I remember explaining to people what it’s like to lose our hair through chemo – running your hand through your hair and letting it come out in pieces…I remember getting off the bus and saw children who didn’t have hair and who look like me,” Buchbinder said.
“And when I told them that just the thought of a particular food made me nauseous, they said they had the same,” she continued. “We may have had a different diagnosis, but we all knew what it was like to tear our childhood away from us.”
Camp Simcha also hosts about 500 children in its day camps during a normal summer: Camp Simcha — for children with cancer and blood disorders — and a sister camp, Camp Simcha Special — for children with chronic illness. It holds two-week sessions – one for girls and one for boys. Both camps serve kosher food and are tuition-free.
“Our number one priority is the health and safety of our campers,” said Rabbi Simcha Scholar, CEO of Chai Lifeline, which funds the camps. All of its programs follow CDC and local health guidelines, staff are vaccinated, every child must have a [COVID] test before entering the camp and more cleaning and maintenance personnel have been hired to keep the site as hygienic as possible, he said.
A Camp Simcha motorhome.
A few parents have decided not to send their kids to camp because of COVID, but most say their kids will need camp this summer, Scholar said. “They want a break from the isolation they are sadly all too familiar with, and long to reconnect with their friends and Camp Simcha family.”
Another camp group, SUNRISE ASSOCIATION DAY CAMPS for children ages 3 to 16 with cancer and their siblings, has already opened as planned in Baltimore, Atlanta, three locations in Israel, and three locations in New York. Like Camp Simcha, they are tuition-free and take extra precautions to protect campers and staff from COVID.
Everyone will wear a mask indoors at all times, said Arnie Preminger, president and CEO of the Sunrise Association, which expects 2,000 children to participate in Sunrise camps this summer — the vast majority of whom had enrolled in 2019.
The camps have mandated COVID vaccinations for all adult staff aged 18 and over and are encouraging junior counselors 16 and 17 to get vaccinated. “We don’t force it because they are minors and we feel it is more the responsibility of their parents to make that decision. Most have chosen to vaccinate,” he said.
More buses are coming this year, so kids can sit in every other seat to make sure they’re three to six feet apart. The camp has also asked for all bus drivers to be vaccinated. Bus windows must be open and everyone on the bus must be masked.
And instead of mixing freely with other campers, kids are assigned to pods or small groups of no more than 15 to minimize COVID contamination. Campers will also be encouraged to wash their hands regularly and distance themselves from anyone who has a cold. And as soon as campers leave a campground, a cleaning crew comes in with disinfectant wipes to clean the entire area.
In addition to following CDC guidelines, the camp assembled a medical task force, made up of a pediatric oncologist and infectious disease specialists, who helped develop guidelines for reopening.
“We didn’t want to make these decisions alone,” Preminger says. “We wanted to follow medicine and science.”
Camp Sunrise is a non-sectarian camp established in 2006 as part of the Friedberg JCC in Oceanside, Long Island. It welcomes children from all backgrounds, including Arab-Israeli children in Israel. “Cancer doesn’t discriminate,” Preminger said.
Camp families who don’t feel comfortable attending camp in person this year have another option. “We don’t force people to come,” Preminger emphasized. A virtual program will enroll as many as 150 campers from all states.
Sunrise also has a camp program for children in hospitals, which relies on paid staff and volunteers. Before COVID, Sunrise had sent volunteers with as many as 120 volunteers to 36 hospitals in the United States and Israel. Now they are back in nine hospitals and expect to return to all 36 hospitals by the end of the year as they rebuild their volunteer base.
Thanks to SUNRISE ASSOCIATION
A girl who works on an art project for the Long Island-based Sunrise Association, which organizes camps for children with cancer and other health problems, and also “camp” for children in hospitals.
“We’re bringing the camp to the hospitals, especially the outpatient clinics where children receive chemotherapy,” explains Preminger.
“Instead of scaring them in the waiting room, we distract them with toys — from card games to computers and board games,” he said. “We bring in a new craft project every week so that the kids get fully involved while waiting for chemo. In some hospitals we sit with the children while they are on chemo and we play games with them.”
Jewish camps for children with cancer are taking extraordinary precautions this summer to protect campers’ health