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 JFS and J send young refugees to camp

By Stacey Dresner

SPRINGFIELD – For children in refugee families the word “camp” can connote an overcrowded community of tents where a lack of healthcare and security can produce trauma almost as bad as that experienced in the land from which they escaped.

In Springfield, camp for 26 children from refugee families from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the South Sudan means sunshine, swimming, sports, arts & crafts and special new friendships.

Through a new partnership between Jewish Family Service of Western Mass. and the Springfield Jewish Community Center, these children, ages 4-14, are attending the J’s Summer Camp for eight weeks at no cost to their families.

“This began in a conversation that I had with Mike Paysnick [executive director of the J] a while back in which we were discussing different ways that we could collaborate,” said Maxine Stein, executive director of JFS of Western Mass. “I brought up the camp as a possibility and he was extremely open to it. And one thing led to another.”

“The leadership at the J felt that camp could provide an opportunity that would have multiple benefits for both new Americans and our typical campers,” Paysnick added. “Through camp, the JFS kids have an opportunity to practice their English, develop friendships, share their culture, have fun, learn new skills and about their new homeland.  Our campers experience that while we may come from different places and have different abilities, we share many more things in common.  We also hoped to provide some degree of respite for families as they adjust to life in America.”

Thirteen of the campers are going for free with the J subsidizing their participation; camp for the rest of the kids is being paid for through Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) childcare vouchers from the state.

Bedford explained that with several New America families arriving over the past couple of months, there was some concern about how the kids would fare during the summer.

“After families arrive kids start school generally a few weeks into their new lives in America. Usually they are in school for just a few months and then the summer break happens. The concern of parents and our concern is the first six months to a year in the United States is so critical for these kids’ social development, their language development and how welcome they feel in the U.S. and hopefully they will feel as they build their lives moving forward.”

Bedford said that besides the fun the young campers are having, camp has provided a “huge level of exposure.”

She gave the example of one 11-year-old who was disappointed that she didn’t get into summer school so that she could learn English better. By spending time with the other children at camp “she’s learning English just by talking to friends.”

“This is such a feel good experience,” Stein said. “I think the most beautiful piece for us is the story of a child learning English, feeling a part of America, learning what other Americans do and how they play, what they have in their backpacks, what they wear and what they eat for lunch. So many people rave about summer camp and all of the different skills campers learn. And here we are doing double – teaching normal leadership and teambuilding skills but also really helping them learn how to be comfortable in America. And that is a gift.”

JFS is also running a program for teenagers from refugee families.

Twenty teens meet at JFS and take field trips to local universities and community colleges. A Smith College professor is leading a Social Improv” workshop for the teens three times a week to help them with their social skills. They will also be matched with adult mentors. 

“The goal is getting the kids out of the house and really exposing them to what the future could look like after high school,” Bedford explained. 

Several “Camp Heroes” from around the community donated items to the young campers. Members of Sinai Temple collected backpacks for each camper. With lists of campers’ ages and sizes, they filled the backpacks with new sneakers, two bathing suits per child, towels, sun hats and play clothes. Also donated were water bottles, sunscreen, bug spray, and snacks.

Rabbi Jeremy Master of Sinai dropped the items off at JFS before camp started.

“Sinai has been involved with helping refugees through JFS for many years in various ways,” said Rabbi Master. “We are committed to the principles of tzedakah and this represented an opportunity to help poor refugees who did not have enough money to buy supplies for camp. Secondly, the Torah tells us to love the stranger, the non-citizen resident among us, because we know what it is like to be a stranger among others and to be mistreated. I believe our history of 

being refugees countless times in our past motivates many Jews to be 

involved in helping other refugees.”

“Emails went back and forth between Sinai and JFS asking for the names of more campers as more Sinai members answered our call for help,” said Laurie Weinberg, co-president of Sinai Temple. “Our collection room was overflowing with backpacks full of everything a camper could use, plus bags of bug spray, sunscreen, and snacks. We were lucky enough to have a congregant who wanted to share hands-on philanthropy with a grandchild, so grandmother and granddaughter picked out an additional outfit for all the campers we supplied!”   

Other members of the community also have donated items and services to the campers and their families, including the Western Massachusetts chapter of Raging Grannies, a group of social activists from the Upper Valley.

Volunteers are helping to carpool several of the children to and from camp, but more volunteers are needed.

“Our biggest challenge has been transportation,” Stein said. 

JFS is seeking more people who can carpool and someone who would be interested in donating a new van to the help transport the campers.

For more information call Sara Bedford at JFS at (413) 737-2601.

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