Sunscreen smeared across young faces is a constant from one summer to the next, but as thousands of area children prepare for familiar outdoor experiences, local camp directors are focusing on changes.
The Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s Rachael Speck said families can expect to see an increase in “inclusion efforts among our day camp programs.”
Whether it’s master’s degree-level interns or inclusion specialists, the JCC is committed to embedding “additional support on site” for campers and staff, Speck said.
Evolve Coaching, a Pittsburgh-based organization that provides individualized support to more than 250 neurodiverse young adults annually, is among those aiding the JCC this summer, Speck added.
Founded in 2014, Evolve has offered one-on-one assistance to help students with “executive function, self-advocacy, and social fulfillment as well as work-readiness” according to the group’s 2022 annual report.
It’s critical that staff isn’t only successful in their roles at camp, but that they can “improve their professional skills for future jobs as well,” Speck said.
In a related measure, the JCC recently hired Jamie Scott as assistant director of staff engagement. The full-time position, according to Speck, ensures that staff is trained for the summer and “appreciated year round.”
Because of the pandemic, hiring and keeping staff presented a recent challenge.
“Having that dedicated position has had a positive impact not only on our ability to recruit but to retain our staff from previous summers,” Speck said.
Rabbi Yisroel Altein, executive director of Camp Gan Izzy, similarly credited a new hire with ensuring that the summer exceeds expectations.
“Nechama Gorkin, our new camp director, is really making sure the program is up to date,” Altein said.
Weeks remain until a deluge of happy campers arrives with hats and sunblock in tow, but Altein said excitement is already brewing at Gan Izzy.
This summer, the popular camp is operating at Community Day School. By using the spacious Jewish day school’s grounds as its base, Gan Izzy becomes an easier logistical experience for many families, Altein explained.
“It’s making it super-local for a majority of our [campers], especially for the younger children,” he said. “Some of them go to CDS during the year, so this allows them to be in a place they are comfortable with, and used to, which makes the transition from school to camp easier.”
Rabbi Sam Weinberg, Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh’s principal, appreciates the transition from school to camp.
“Hillel Camp is a nice complement to the education that students receive at Hillel Academy,” he said. “It is a place where they can take all the values and lessons they learn in school and apply them to different aspects of their life, where they can grow their Jewish identities and learn that Jewish values don’t just occur in the classroom but take part in color war, on the ball field or during such other fun activities and things.”
For the past year, Hillel Academy has been under construction to facilitate a “record enrollment;” and while the sights and sounds of building will continue this summer, he said, the joy of camp won’t be diminished.
Campers are slated to visit Kennywood, the Incline and Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium, but Weinberg is particularly excited about one summer staple: T-shirts.
Like most day camps, Hillel plans on providing its campers and staff with an identifiable piece of swag.
“People don’t have enough T-shirts, especially brightly colored T-shirts,” he said. “What’s great about these is that if you want to take your kid to the pool afterwards, and your child is wearing one of our camp T-shirts, you can be like ‘Hey, there’s my kid.’”
Educators and camp directors keenly understand camp’s value. As summer rapidly approaches, however, they hope parents and campers don’t just prepare for an amazing set of sun-filled weeks but embrace the other gifts camp offers.
“Our main focus of camp is giving kids an exciting and fun time being Jewish,” Altein said. “Some kids get that from school, but I think most kids need a camp setting to be proud of being Jewish, to be happy being Jewish and to have fun being Jewish.”
“What continues to be really special and unique about the camp experience is kids and even staff have an opportunity to step away from the stress of daily life,” Speck said. “We employ a large number of teens — and as we all know there is a teen mental health crisis going on in this country — and camp provides campers and staff real authentic opportunities to build relationships and to get outside. Those things are timeless no matter how much the world continues to change.”
New programming and an increased focus on inclusion represent updates for this summer, but the core values remain unchanged. Camp is a place where children and staff can “try new things and develop new skills that are going to prepare them for young adulthood, for college, for a career later on, whatever that journey might look like,” she continued. “I think camp, especially the way we do things, provides such a safe and supportive environment for those new relationships to develop and for people to grow as individuals in their own authentic ways. That’s the key.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.