It’s 5:00 p.m. and 14-year-old Lea is logging on to Zoom for that evening’s virtual Camp Simcha activity. On this particular evening, it’s a baking demonstration. Lea prepared the ingredients beforehand so that she could join along. “It’s the highlight of her day,” Lea’s mother shared. “She’s counting down to 5 o’clock from when she wakes up.”
Lea is one of nearly 500 children who spend magical summers at Camp Simcha each year. Both Camp Simcha, for children with cancer and other blood illnesses, and Camp Simcha Special, for children with disabilities and chronic illnesses, are programs of Chai Lifeline, the international children’s health support network. Four two-week-long sessions give children an opportunity to leave the bubble of illness, hospital stays, pain, and isolation. Camp Simcha is their cocoon of happiness, providing them with lifelong friends and memories, and building their confidence long after they’ve returned home.
The current COVID-19 pandemic is particularly hard for Simcha campers—most are at added risk of severe complications due to weakened immune systems or underlying medical conditions—so the continuous camp spirit is a vital source of happiness.
“Throughout the year staff members are in touch with campers to keep their spirits up,” says Ari Dembitzer, head counselor of the Camp Simcha’s boys divisions. But now his staff has launched a new campaign. “Our goal is to reach 1,000 phone-call or video-chat minutes per week,” he continued.
The 1,000 minutes of virtual engagement, which the staff are constantly surpassing, are in addition to the special programming and entertainment that camp runs almost nightly. It is those programs that Lea looks forward to all day.
The rotation of activities can include anything from live bingo to a “Zoom-ba” class featuring favorite camp songs, mind-reading shows, science experiments, art classes, concerts, or perhaps a Camp Simcha’s Got Talent show—anything to spread cheer to campers and their families, who are also welcome to participate. Many of the special entertainers are Camp Simcha alumni who are excited for the chance to give back.
Even when there are no scheduled activities, Lea is busy texting her friends, speaking to her counselors, or organizing mini bunk reunions over Zoom. “To be completely honest, I have no idea how Lea would survive now without camp,” her mother shared. “It keeps her busy all day.”
Every morning, an email goes out with that day’s Camp Simcha agenda. “One camper told me that she doesn’t get out of bed until her phone buzzes,” said Rivky Zuckerman, head counselor of Camp Simcha’s girls division. The email includes a schedule of planned activities, exciting videos from staff, and updates on the “Corona Challenge”—a series of tasks for campers to attempt, like drawing their favorite camp spot blindfolded or creating a secret handshake with a friend. “Anything from camp is exciting for Lea,” her mother stressed. “Even when she doesn’t join, she can be entertained for hours just watching everyone else’s videos!”
“We have kids who are logged onto school with classmates all day, but they tell us that they literally can’t wait for school to end so they can be with their Simcha friends,” the head counselors said. The head counselors often pop in to say hi during the camper-led bunk reunions. “You see how campers shine when they’re in their favorite environment with people who understand them. These are their friends, this is their family, and this is their support,” said Zuckerman. Camp Simcha has the kind of atmosphere that echoes throughout the year, long after the suitcases are unpacked and everyone’s returned home.
Now, more than ever, Lea’s parents are relying on that support. “I really don’t know how she would get through this period of isolation without camp. To know that she has them all year…” her voice trailed off. “There really are no words.”