They needed this summer camp. Big time.
In the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic, it was crucial for Stroum Jewish Community Center campers, counselors, coordinators and leaders to gather and bring the J-Cation summer camp onto the Island. The pre-K through fifth-grade camp kicked off on July 13 and will run through Aug. 28 during the summer, with an extension set for September for kids through eighth grade.
Masks and social distancing are the new normal for everyone involved as they engage in myriad activities. The only time the masks come off are when they’re involved in water sports or eating.
Social-interaction levels are at a premium this summer, according to coordinator Jessi Luper, who was once a camper herself.
“You can’t see their smiles, but you know they’re smiling based on how they’re talking and based on their body language — resetting ways to interact with people because they haven’t in a long time. Without hugging or high-fiving or being close to each other,” Luper said of the camp, which runs from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm Monday-Friday.
Staying laser-focused on maintaining eye contact and listening to each other even more are keys to the whole situation as well, she said.
Added Dave Flagler, director of SJCC’s Camps and Youth Programs: “The human connection piece, that hasn’t changed one bit. The mask issue, we were all worried about it for the first day, but it really was a non-issue after that. One interesting thing is that, while we always encourage this, the counselors to get down to the kids’ level. It just forces it that much more, because you have to be much more direct in your communication.”
To help maintain social distancing, Flagler said campers use airplane arms or walk like zombies or mummies to achieve the required separation. They have fun while following the rules.
J-Cation is similar to SJCC’s traditional Camp Kef and Camp Katan and features mainly outside activities of swimming, arts and crafts, music, dancing and more. Many of the activities take place at SJCC while others are held on the nearby Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation waterfront property. For more information, visit https://sjcc.org/programs/j-kids/j-cation/
Flagler estimates they have about 80 campers per week and that will amount to nearly 550 over the summer. Staff-wise, they have about 40 on board this summer.
SJCC’s CEO Amy Lavin said they begin each day with health screens and temperature checks and they frequently wash their hands throughout the day.
Things are different this summer, but the same level of spirit, energy and friendship remains.
“I would say it’s a little bit different kind of vibrancy. In a wonderful way, it’s almost even more special because the kids haven’t been able to see other kids in months, and the ability to connect has actually been appreciated even more. It’s just a change, and so the joy of it is just different,” Lavin said. “We’ve been thrilled to see kids back having a fantastic time, doing the things they’ve always done and meeting new friends.”
Lavin added that SJCC is there to help families and bring joy to the community while prioritizing everyone’s health and safety above all.
Prior to launching the camp, Flagler heard from parents who expressed concerns that their kids were struggling at home because they were longing to connect with their friends. He spoke to colleagues across the country and they all knew the kids and parents needed a boost of positivity during these uncertain times.
Flagler said the camp has been a relief for families.
It’s vital, he added, “to have a place where they can go, where they can be safe emotionally, where there isn’t that academic pressure, where there isn’t that confined-to-your-home pressure and the same people. To let loose and to explore that and to have those experiences has been really amazing for these kids.”
For Luper, the kids keep her coming back to camp each summer. They’ve grown together and are connecting with each other stronger each day.