Updates were promised… and so, here they are.
My first week away from home was staff training week at Ramah. It was intense. Camp Ramah is enormous. There will be close to 1000 campers here over the course of the summer. In order to make the camp function, there will be somewhere in the order of 300 staff members doing every job imaginable: cabin counselor, Jewish studies instructor, lifeguard, nurse, maintenance… the list goes on. And yet, somehow, in the space of one short week, we were brought together as one community (Camp Ramah Tzevet) with a common task (delivering an excellent Jewish summer program to the children in our care, making it fun, and keeping them safe). As a Jewish professional and as an educator, I felt inspired many times during the training week. I felt a sense of responsibility to pass that inspiration on.
And then the campers arrived.
My job keeps me busy every hour of every day. I carry two cell phones: my personal phone, plus the phone issued from camp. On my personal phone, I communicate with the other members of my staff- mostly by text. (“Jennifer needs to go the infirmary to have her wrist checked by the doctor.” “Have all the kids written home today? I need their letters before lights out tonight.” “Michael looked sad during swim class. Do you know what’s bothering him?”). When my camp phone rings, I know it’s a parent calling to ask me about his/her child.
The pace of the job is intense. Every day literally feels as if it is a week long. I remember something that happened this morning, but it feels as if it happened six or seven days ago.
The job is physically demanding. It is a quarter mile from my bunk and my campers’ bunks to the part of camp where the dining hall, infirmary and social hall are. I make the walk (round trip) four or five times a day.
The learning curve of this job is STEEP. In order to do my job, I’ve had to quickly form relationships with co-workers all over camp. I’ve had to figure out how to access the technology I need (set up my voicemail on my camp phone, navigate the “campminder” database for accessing camper files, etc). I’ve also had to figure out all the systems in camp (how to clean up after meals, how to get a letter mailed, how to sign out of camp on a day off). For the first two weeks, I was trying to absorb so much new information, I thought my brain was going to burst.
Do I like what I’m doing? Overall, the answer is yes. I love the challenge of calming an anxious parent or finally getting through to a child who is homesick. I love strategizing with the counselors on my staff, and seeing them implement the ideas we came up with.
The hardest work I do is around inclusion. Addressing the needs of kids with special needs is challenging in any environment, but it’s particularly challenging at camp. One of the things that makes camp so special is the opportunity for kids to grow in independence and to figure things out themselves. But for the kids who need structure and routine, the laid-back, “see if you can figure it out” atmosphere doesn’t always work. It’s my job to help build a bridge between what the inclusion kids are able to do, and what they are expected to do at camp. Sometimes that means helping them to learn a new skill that they need at camp and sometimes that means creating an accommodation for them. Creativity, cooperative problem-solving, and flexibility are all essentials in the process. The most rewarding moments so far have been witnessing my inclusion campers overcoming hurdles that seemed impossible on day one, but by day six or seven they can navigate with ease.
So, what’s my overall assessment? It took about three weeks to escape the feeling that somehow I was doing my job all wrong. For three weeks, I constantly felt behind the eight ball, like I was running around putting out fires, rather than scanning the horizon and effectively preventing the fires from starting.
But, my first group of campers went home on Sunday. I had a day off on Monday, and came back to camp rested and ready to greet the new group of campers on Tuesday. Somehow, with the arrival of the second group, I’ve turned a corner. I no longer feel like I’m playing catch up. I can think proactively about these kids and what they need from me in order to make their experience at camp fun and exciting.
Now, with a scant ten days remaining of my time here, I’m finally getting the hang of it, and I’m finally starting to relax and enjoy. I’ve found myself laughing and smiling quite a bit the last few days.
Last night after dinner, the Israeli dance music started playing over the loud speaker. Three hundred campers rocketed off their wooden benches, and the dining hall erupted in exuberant, joyful energy. G whispered excitedly into my ear, “I know this dance!” And for the first time all summer, G and I joined the crowd on the makeshift dancefloor. A moment later, S appeared by my side. And there we were, the three of us, caught up in the crowd, dancing, singing and smiling.
It’s a hard job. It’s tiring. Some days I feel emotionally drained. But there are moments of such immeasurable beauty and connection. I feel like I’m doing something important, and that I’m contributing to something larger than myself. And, I’m going to come home from camp with lots of great stories to tell!