For parents grappling with their own serious illness, summer is a time of fear and uncertainty. Like everyone else, they are well aware of how necessary a positive summer experience is to a child’s development. All the more so for their children, who spend the year confronted with adult burdens and concerns. They desperately need a chance to relax, to get away from it all, and to just be kids again. The realities of disease, however, have depleted the family’s emotional and financial resources. Even if they could somehow find a way to send their kids to camp, how will they relate to the other children—and even to the staff—who have no frame of reference for the challenges they face on a daily basis? Won’t camp serve only to highlight the gulf that separates these kids from their peers?
This year, those concerns were allayed by the debut of Camp4ever! A project of Chai4ever, the premier organization providing hope, help and strength to families struck by parental illness, Camp4ever! focused exclusively on children with a sick parent, allowing them to feel secure and empowered in the company of others who could relate to their situation. “My son felt like a prisoner,” related Isaac N. “He withdrew from all of his friends, because they couldn’t understand his feelings about his mother’s illness. When he heard about Camp4ever!, he seemed excited for the first time in months! He felt he would finally be able to experience real companionship.”
Not content with having a high staff-to-camper ratio, Camp4ever! went the extra step and assigned each camper his own counselor. “We know how isolated kids dealing with a parent’s illness can feel,” explained Chai4ever’s Founder and Executive Vice President, Rabbi Shmuel Zaks. “We have many programs in place year-round to help with that. But we wanted camp to have a lasting positive effect. We needed our especially trained counselors to forge relationships with their campers that would continue throughout the year.” This foresight has borne fruit, as counselors have maintained a close connection with their charges even after camp ended. “My boys get a call from their counselors at least once a week,” said Esti C. “And in the short time since camp was over the counselors have already dropped by twice to take my boys out for ice cream or play catch.”
All of Chai4ever’s insight into the dynamics of families with a seriously ill parent was crucial to Camp4ever!’s mission. “Our primary goal was twofold,” Rabbi Zaks points out. “We wanted to give the kids a vital break in a supportive atmosphere, but we also wanted their parents to be able to relax.” He points to the many texts, letters and emails Chai4ever received from grateful parents as proof of success. Malky P., who is embroiled in a multi-year battle with cancer, wrote, “In the past, we sent David to camp after lengthy discussions with his counselors, camp directors, and administrative staff. Still, we were tense all summer long; what if one of his bunkmates said something insensitive? What if he wasn’t happy, but didn’t want to add to our burdens by telling us? This year, with Chai4ever in charge, we had no worries. We knew they would take care of everything, even things we wouldn’t have thought of! The constant texts we got from David over the course of Camp4ever! only confirmed our assurance that he was having the time of his life.”
Camp4ever! departed Sunday with a gala sendoff party, and headed south (with a brief surprise stop at a camper’s bar mitzvah party, to enhance his celebration) towards Orlando, FL. The travel was intended to impart an added measure of camaraderie, as the time on the comfortable coach busses was spent in singing, cheering and conversation. Indeed, as the buses rolled day and night, they seemed to be fueled by indefatigable Camp4ever! spirit rather than simple gasoline. Ziplining, dolphin watching and minor-league baseballing (nice first pitch, Meyer!) their way through the Carolinas, the sense of bonhomie and togetherness continued to grow. “I finally feel that I can relax, that everybody ‘gets’ me,” enthused Chaim K. “This is the greatest experience of my life!”
Speaking of high points, Shabbos at Camp4ever! was transcendent. Without any outside distractions, the bonds of unity and mutual support were even more readily apparent. From the Carlebach-style davening to the spirited zemiros, from skits and charades to stories by master storyteller and Director of Social Services Ezi Levi, every moment was permeated by joy. And what would a Camp4ever! Melaveh Malka be without a rocking concert—thanks Yoni Z!
“Ever since my husband got sick,” reads one mother’s emotional email, “our son has been withdrawn and uptight. He would barely respond to direct questions with one-syllable answers. Any attempt to talk to him about his feelings or his father’s illness made him shut down completely. But he returned from camp a different person! He is confident and cheerful. When he comes home from school, he volunteers information about his day. Even more telling is his attitude towards Camp4ever! I assumed he would be embarrassed to tell people that he had gone to a “special” camp, but I could not have been more wrong. He walks around singing the “Fight Song,” and is excited to tell his friends about his great summer. Chai4ever, you gave my son his life back. I cannot thank you enough.” But for Chai4ever’s dedicated staff and hardworking volunteers, no thanks is necessary. The achievement of their goals, readily apparent in the radiant faces of the children and relaxed miens of their parents, is all they care about.