Last summer, counselors at Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake in New York met once a week with a social worker to discuss their own issues, and the results were dramatic, according to executive director Helene Drobenare: One counselor left mid-summer to see a therapist at home, another checked into treatment at the end of the summer to address an eating disorder. The initiative was part of an increased focus at the camp on the mental, emotional, and social health (MESH) needs of campers and staff.
Once upon a time, when summer arrived, kids gleefully went to camp and lived happily with their friends in communal bunks enjoying swimming, art, sports, and Shabbat rituals. Counselors were often college or high school students who muddled through the session with minimal training and support, while managing to have fun with peers while supervising their campers.
But camp was never that idyllic for everyone involved. The mental health and well-being of staff and campers was often subsumed by the veneer of carefree summer living. Or as Sheira Director-Nowack, director at Camp Havaya in Pennsylvania, said in describing her days as a camper, some kids, particularly those who needed more attention, were “tolerated until they left.”
The Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) has just announced that it will be making 32 grants over three years of $32,000 each to support MESH at Jewish summer camps.
“Over the last decade, the needs of our campers and staff have changed,” said Marissa Becker, senior program manager at FJC, who observed that the “demands on kids start younger and younger.”
“Away from home, they react to things differently, and they are in a different routine.” She added that “college-age staffers are going through huge transitions in their lives, so we really need qualified professionals at camp” to work with both groups.
Among the 32 selected from a pool of 90 applicants are eight camps popular with N.J. families, including Pennsylvania camps Camp Havaya, URJ Camp Harlam, and Pinemere Camp; New York’s Camp Ramah Nyack, Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake, and Eden Village Camp; Camp Ramah in the Rockies; and URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy in Massachusetts. The grants are made possible by The Marcus Foundation, Inc. of Atlanta.
The main goal of the grant is to enable day and overnight camps to hire more mental health professionals. It will also provide more staff training and implementation of self-care best practices for campers and staff alike, such as mindfulness, yoga, and journaling.
MESH is about creating an environment that supports general wellness. That could be focusing on resilience and self-advocacy, creating quiet spaces in a day full of activities, or providing the tools to understand and manage emotions.
Becker pointed out that many camps have long hired parents to give campers some extra love if they are having a hard time, chalking their needs up to symptoms of homesickness. Hiring “camp moms” is now falling by the wayside, according to Becker. “It probably was not the best practice,” she said.
Some, like Sprout Lake, Camp Harlam, Eden Village, Ramah in the Rockies, and Camp Havaya, are among pioneers in the MESH field; they represent one of three distinct bands of recipients. The others are those in the middle ground and those now dipping a first big toe into MESH waters.
Of the total sum awarded to each camp, $20,000 is for a mental health professional, $6,000 is for staff training, $4,500 will go toward a program area, and $1,500 may be applied toward marketing.
Each new hire will participate in what is known as a community of practice, a cohort for learning and sharing together across all of the camps.
Some camps’ MESH grants will have a particular focus — at Sprout Lake it’s on having a separate social worker designated for staff, but also includes, for example, adding certified yoga teachers to enable relaxion for both staff and campers.
Camp Havaya will add computers to a quiet room where campers, if needed, can Skype with home therapists (they used to have to bring their own computers).
“I’d rather a kid miss canoeing if it means we’ll see what’s really going on,” said Director-Nowack.
According to her, Havaya campers tend to be “real thinkers” who are also anxiety ridden, and a segment of their population also deals with the nuances of coming out, being part of the LGBTQI community, or coming from racially diverse backgrounds, which bring their own challenges to Jewish adolescents.
“Not every kid needs an extra counselor,” said Director-Nowack, “but we try to make sure every kid feels heard and listened to.” The grant, she said, will help them implement that focus on mental health.
At Eden Village Camp, Beth Praver, a psychologist and director of parent engagement, said the focus there would be on enhancing staff training to focus on what she called the teen “fascination” with suicidality and self-harm. “It permeates the culture,” said Praver.
The new training will also focus on de-escalation and trauma, and they will be bringing horticultural therapy to their already existing farm and expanding their camper care team. Praver sees the grants as filling a need at Jewish camps. She pointed out that even five years ago, FJC offered plenty of training for inclusion of kids with special needs at camp.
“But there was a vacuum for kids needing mental health support,” she said. “This is really filling in that area.”