The Camp Simcha Special Family mourns the recent passing of Dr. Robert Van Amerongen Z”L, medical director of Camp Simcha Special. Dr. Van, as he was lovingly known by campers and staff alike, helped lead the Camp Simcha Special medical program since its inception in 2001. His kindness, warmth, sense of humor, and gentle manner were an inspiration to all who knew him. As we mourn his passing, we also remember Dr. Van’s legacy of caring and compassion, and the impact he had on the lives of so many.
Rivkah Reichmann, LCSW, associate director of Camp Simcha Special, shared her memories of her dear colleague and friend, Dr.Van.
My family had the unbelievable honor of spending the last 20 summers in Camp Simcha Special with Robert, Susie, and their girls. During this time, we became like family. He leaves a legacy of greatness and devotion that we will never forget.
First and foremost, as a husband, father, and son. We saw firsthand how much he loved and cherished his family. How Susie, Jennifer, Nicole, and Ashley were his first priority, his pride and joy, and how he would do anything for them. The respect and devotion he showed his parents, especially during his father’s illness, taught us a valuable lesson about how one should honor their parents.
Second, professionally, not only was he an outstanding doctor, who treated each patient with tremendous skill and kindness, but he was also an incredible leader. When there was a medical crisis, Dr. Van was the person you wanted at the scene. He had such a strong, calm, and commanding presence. Under his leadership, Camp Simcha Special blossomed, and grew to support over 250 medically compromised children each summer, and provide them with a safe, life-changing summer experience.
Robert taught us so many lessons. He coined the phrase, and operationalized the concept, that Camp Simcha Special was “a hospital disguised as a camp.” He made sure that campers didn’t feel like patients – they felt like kids who were being cared for with love and respect. Whether dancing with campers or grabbing the microphone for a soulful rendition of his favorite song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, Dr. Van always made sure to infuse elements of playfulness and joy so that campers felt comfortable around the medical staff. Dr. Van rarely said no to a request for an activity that would bring joy to our campers, he simply worked to find a way to make each activity safe for them to participate in. He spent many hours outside personally supervising campers at activities such as mud runs, obstacle courses, and motorcycle rides to ensure that his safety standards were being adhered to.
Dr. Van was a person who stuck by his principles no matter what. Among those principles were loyalty and respect for everyone, no matter their position or background. This permeated everything he did. He believed and taught that it’s not enough to strive for excellence in medicine and patient care, but it’s imperative to treat every staff member with kindness. He always made sure that the medical staff was taken care of, that everyone got along, and that we worked as a cohesive team. Dr. Van would work quietly behind the scenes to resolve any interpersonal conflicts so that the positive atmosphere in the infirmary could always be maintained.
He protected his staff even at his own expense. He would often say that the senior infirmary staff could read each other’s minds after all these years of working together. This was because he laid out his vision with such clarity – and we, therefore, knew how to put his plan into action.
All year long he had camp on his mind, always thinking of ways we could improve and provide a better experience for our campers. We would spend many hours each year going through applications, and Dr. Van would always manage to figure out a way for our sickest campers to be appropriately cared for so that they could have the opportunity to come to camp. Even last summer when he wasn’t feeling well, he still insisted on being involved in every aspect of our pre-camp planning and being called for any issue that came up. On one occasion when a medical crisis arose, I didn’t call Dr. Van, knowing that he was having a particularly rough day. When I later told him what had occurred in camp, he was distressed that he hadn’t been called—he felt so responsible for every camper, and wanted so badly to be involved in their care, even if from afar.
Third, he was a dear friend to my husband Shumy and me, for more than 20 years. He was always there for us when we needed something. We so enjoyed the Shabbos meals in camp with Robert, Susie, and the Girls. Being around the Vans was always an experience, full of Robert’s very memorable stories and jokes—even if Ashley would sometimes be embarrassed by his corny jokes, we truly loved hearing them.
Sharing in each other’s simchas was something that meant so much to us. We will never forget how Robert beamed with joy at Jen and Nicole’s weddings, and how blessed we felt having Robert and Susie join us at our son’s bar mitzvah in Camp Simcha this past summer. We will always cherish these moments and are so grateful for the memories and the time we spent together.
We will never forget Robert and the remarkable impact he has had on our lives. While it will be difficult, we will do our best to honor his legacy and carry on this important work with his trademark love, humor, and compassion.