An Open Letter to Camp Parents/Guardians & Staff
By Danielle Steinhart, Director of Community Care at URJ Camp Coleman
Dear Parents/Guardians and Staff,
This is what we were hoping not to write. You’ve now gotten the news, the news that we feared was coming, but hoping wasn’t.
For some of us, camp isn’t happening, at least not in the way we had planned.
We are stunned, devastated, sad. We can talk about how it’s the right decision. The decision to keep everyone safe and not take additional risks. The loss is real. Whether you are a parent or a staff member, our campers are looking to you for dealing with this.
Maybe it was going to be your child’s first summer away. You’ve worked with them all year to make sure they know how to brush their hair and teeth properly. They know they should change their clothes every day. They are excited and you are happy for them, if not a little petrified. Goals for sending them to camp included making friends, gaining independence, and learning new skills on the lake.
Maybe this was the first summer your child was old enough to pick their own activities or go on the “other” white water rafting trip. They had a feeling of who would be in their bunk, hoping their favorite staff members would be their people again.
All these dreams and plans seem to have gone up in smoke. As the Director of Community Care at URJ Camp Coleman, I too, am grieving the loss of what was supposed to be, who were supposed to become during the intense, life-changing experience of camp. It is ok and necessary to grieve this loss. There are wonderful articles on speaking with children about death. Use those articles to help direct conversation about the loss they may be feeling. The grief is palpable and real for them (and you). Think about ways to validate their loss. Yes, there are many people who are in much worse situations than we are, but the current experiences of you and your child are valid and tangible. The horrible things in the outside world don’t negate the feelings of sadness that are being experienced right now.
Delivering the news to your child may be difficult for you to share and difficult for them to hear. Best practice is to tell them the truth and be clear. They are going to take their cues from you. It’s ok to tell them that you’re sad that they won’t get to have this experience this summer. The good news is that we can plan for next year. Think about all the things they were most excited about and make a list. You can use this list as a time capsule to share with them when preparing for summer 2021. If you are a staff member, this is something you can be ready with, too.
Acknowledge the cycle of sadness, hopefulness, and redemption that we, as Jews, live with. You know the story: things are going great, things get really difficult, Jews find a way to cope with the situation.
As adults, our first inclination may be to help children by “fixing” their feelings. Let them sit in it. Encourage them to write letters to their friends – they can even use that awesome stationary you were thinking about getting them for writing to you. They can have a bunk video chat with their bunkmates and counselors from last summer, and play their favorite camp songs and have a dance party. Give them time to be sad and opportunities to channel their sadness into something they can control.
Campers and families aren’t the only people experiencing a sense of loss. If you were planning to work at camp this summer, you are no doubt feeling a sense loss as well. I challenge you to let yourself experience your extremely valid emotions, while also finding ways to continue to connect to your camp community.
Maybe this was your first summer on staff. You’ve missed the end of the school year, you’ve missed prom and graduation. You thought, luckily, you still had camp as your one saving grace. You’d set up your college plans around being able to be summer staff. You were prepared to be just like that counselor you had growing up. You were going to be amazing as a counselor and learn so much about yourself. While this summer won’t go the way you thought, you still have the opportunity to reach out to fellow staff members and leadership team members. We are all here to support you.
Maybe this was year 5+ on staff, and you’re now in a leadership role. This was going to be the summer you supervised other staff for the first time .You had great program ideas and thoughtful plans to build a great rapport with your campers. Campers and staff still need your leadership, and you have the opportunity to help others find themselves in a very bumpy situation (for example, check if your camp is offering virtual programming in which you can take part).
At camp, we teach people to thrive with clear structure, expectations, and boundaries (to know where the lines are so they understand consequences when they cross the line). Many of us feel like things are completely out of our control right now. We can’t just go out to dinner, we can’t go back to school and see our friends, we can’t sit in the Chadar Ochel cheering together. For some of us, having a clear daily schedule is helpful, while for some of us, binge watching a show helps. Do what is needed to find control in your world. Go for a walk, plant a garden, play with the dog, write a letter to the cleaning staff of your local hospitals.
Grieve the loss. Feel it. And then, find ways to talk to others about it. Judaism requires us to mourn with the community, so reach out to the community. If you feel you or your child need more support than you can give, reach out to your camp, Rabbis or other clergy, or mental health professionals. This is a time that we all need one another.
Here’s to Summer 2021. Here’s to the creative potential of Summer 2020. Your camp community is here for you, and the magic of camp exists outside the gate.
Danielle Steinhart, Licensed Clinical Social Worker whose focus of practice is with adolescents and teens, is the Director of Community Care at URJ Camp Coleman. Danielle attended the University of Michigan where she earned her Masters Degree in Social Work and Certificate in Jewish Communal Service. Danielle has been working for URJ Camp Coleman for 11 years and served as the Middle School Counselor at The Epstein School in Atlanta, Georgia for the eight years. Prior to Epstein Danielle spent multiple years working at JF&CS and synagogues as a youth professional.