Throughout the school year, children around the world look forward to summer vacation and joining their friends at summer camp. After all, the summer months just wouldn’t be the same without the fun, structured activities that afford children the opportunities to connect with nature and each other, while developing self-confidence and building lifelong memories.
But for hundreds of Jewish children in the Ukraine, summer camp takes on a whole new meaning. It is very often the difference between hope and desperation.
For the last three years, LifeChanger FSU has been organizing summer camps for the project’s children, providing them with opportunities to improve their social skills, broaden their horizons, strengthen their connections to Jewish culture, and immerse themselves in a positive growth environment. By removing them from their usual stressful and even dangerous surroundings, LifeChanger FSU gives Jewish children in the Ukraine, who are grappling with extreme poverty, neglect, abuse, and overlooked physical and emotional disabilities, the freedom to explore their world and develop to their fullest potentials.
“Summer camp is often seen as nothing more than a way to keep children occupied during the long summer months. But for the children in our program, it is an elusive safe space and a crucial growth experience,” said Irina Chernobryvetz, Director of LifeChanger FSU.
“Recreational activities, team competitions and field trips are expertly planned with experienced educators and mental health professionals to bring out the very best in every child, while at the same time preparing the groups for the social and educational challenges they will face during the next school year.”
The summer camp programming is integrated with the individualized rehabilitation plans developed by LifeChanger FSU for each child enrolled in the program, effectively breaking the cycle of solitude and isolation and guiding them towards sustained recovery, long-term development, and independence.
Prior to camp, counselors meet with the consulting mental health professionals to review the campers’ psychological profiles and receive guidance on how to guide the groups. By design, the camp staff is comprised mostly of program graduates, so the counselors already have firsthand knowledge of what must be done to ensure a successful camp season.
Over the years, LifeChanger FSU’s summer camp has radically changed the lives of children who could not be reached in other settings. For example, Bogdana had difficulties communicating with her peers and was bullied at school. But at camp, she began to blossom and develop real leadership qualities. By the time she returned to school, Bogdana exuded confidence and was very socially active.
Angela had a similar experience and explains that LifeChanger FSU’s summer camp helped her develop her strengths and set personal goals. “I became more confident, and I suddenly wanted to learn more about everything. I was determined to improve my school performance, and I knew from my experiences at summer camp that I could expect more from myself, and that I should be proud of what I already accomplished.”
Feedback from other participants make it clear that the camp experience is informative in every way, allowing campers to navigate social situations, become more responsible, develop a strong Jewish identity, learn how to communicate with peers and adults, and even learn to control their anger.
“These children come from the most economically repressed areas of the Ukraine and are often in the direct line of fire, dealing with armed conflict in the streets and familial strife within their homes. There is no breathing room, and their needs are rarely seen as a priority,” explains Chernobryvetz. “In addition to giving them space and putting their needs first, the camp experience acts as a pause button, allowing them to grow and develop in a vacuum. When they return to the ‘real world,’ they are much better equipped to face the challenges that weighed so heavily on them before.”
In many cases, single parent families in dire situations are treated to the camp experience together. With their children in good hands, mothers enjoy programming for adults and the opportunity to relax and connect with their peers. They also receive counseling and work with LifeChanger FSU coordinators to plan the next steps of their rehabilitation.
“For so many Jewish families in the Ukraine, summer camp is an opportunity to establish new social connections, develop relationships and heal,” says Chernobryvetz. “It is a window into a better life, and an example to strive towards. It’s so much more than fresh air and time at the pool. It’s an experience that can actually save lives and set families down the path to success.
By: Maayan Gutbezahl