Ecstatic children spill off the buses and run through a tunnel of counselors decked out in silly costumes, cheering loudly. The session kickoff is a thrill for the campers, who without Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special would not be able to participate in the joys of summer camp.
The children and teens who attend Camp Simcha all have cancer diagnoses, and those attending Camp Simcha Special are living with chronic illnesses or disabilities. The campers descend on the 125-acre campgrounds in Glen Spey, N.Y., from all over North America, Israel, South Africa and Europe for two-week sessions of nonstop fun, all of which is free to the families, transportation included.
“It’s beautiful to watch the kids who come back every year, the excitement as they get off the bus to see the friends that they made at camp,” said girls’ head counselor Rivky Schwartz. “[Campers] tell me all the time that there’s no friends that they have like their friends at Camp Simcha.”
Boys’ head counselor Ari Dembitzer concurs, saying, “It’s really unique the conversations the kids will have because of their similar experiences. They’re very open about it.” He adds that campers provide comfort to one another when needed, which is a rarity.
“We shower them with a lot of love,” he said. “They feel loved and special, then all of a sudden they’re not thinking about their illness, they’re thinking about all the things that they’re getting [at camp].”
The days are packed at Camp Simcha with all the typical camp experiences — swimming, boating, candle making, sports, photography, camp fires and more — all adapted to accommodate campers’ different needs.
There’s singing and dancing along to music spun by the camp DJ at every meal, face painting for theme days, time spent in a recording studio, helicopter rides, concerts and performances and even guest appearances by celebrities. Last summer, New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia thrilled campers by showing them how to throw and by signing countless autographs.
“With travel days, we only get 11 full days of camp. We want to give them as much as we can in that time,” said camp director Rabbi Avrohom Kunstlinger.
Program director Shaindy Lowenthal of Baltimore has been with Camp Simcha for 25 years and is the mastermind behind daily activity schedules and the special events that make camp, in her words, a “magical wonderland.”
She recalls a particularly memorable moment from a few summers ago in which the dining hall was transformed into a winter wonderland, complete with eight inches of artificial snow, a ski lodge and mascots in costumes interacting with the campers.
For one wheelchair-bound Camp Simcha Special camper, it was the first time she got to play in the snow. Despite growing up in New York, her chair had kept her inside away from traditional snow day fun.
“Camp Simcha is truly a magical wonderland where we just try to make kids happiness [our priority],” said Lowenthal. “Scientific studies have shown time and time again … that happiness can help people respond to their treatment.”
Photos by Chai Lifeline
Though camp is a place where kids can be kids, the reality of their illnesses are addressed by the full medical staff headed by Dr. Peter Steinherz. Camp Simcha has its own ambulance and can deal with most emergencies on campus, according to Kunstlinger.
The budget to maintain and run camp is in the neighborhood of $3.5 million per year, he estimates.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” said the rabbi. “Almost $9,000 to $10,000 per child.”
Chai Lifeline, the parent organization of Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special, runs charity campaigns throughout the year, such as Bike4Chai, to pay for camp and other respite services.
For the staff, especially the counselors, the experience of working at Camp Simcha and Camp Sim-cha Special is transformative. The counselor-to-camper ratio is frequently one-to-one.
“You walk away a different person,” said Kuntslinger. “You’re changed.”
“More than less, kids really take to their counselors and take to them as a pillar of strength,” added Dembitzer.
The bonds forged at camp continue well past the summer with some counselors opting to be big brothers and sisters to their campers, celebrating events large and small together.
“For the campers, you can break it up into two categories: short term thrill, excitement, getting to be a kid again after so much hospitalization,” said Kuntslinger. “Long term, it’s even more important they gain the strength and the courage to go on with what they need to do in life. … Kids come to camp despondent; they leave camp excited for life, with the will to live.”