Children and teens battling cancer, their parents, and siblings recently traveled from around the country to upstate New York to experience the magic of Camp Simcha as part of a three-day “Family Adventure.”
In connection with Chai Lifeline’s Family Adventure, a total of eighteen families gathered at Camp Simcha, an overnight camp for children and teens with cancer and other hematologic illnesses. Family Adventure is a program of Chai Lifeline, an international children’s health support organization. Chai Lifeline’s programs and services enable very sick children, their families and communities to cope with the crises and long term emotional, social, and financial challenges of pediatric illness or loss.
Rabbi Simcha Scholar, Chai Lifeline’s executive vice president, noted that although the event was held in a camp, Chai Lifeline’s Family Adventure was so much more than just camp.
“We deliberately did not call it a camp because this was not merely a camping experience,” said Rabbi Scholar. “This was a unique opportunity for families to reconnect with one another and develop their own support system for coping with a child’s cancer treatment.”
The distinction might have been difficult for visitors to comprehend, as families donned white t-shirts and ran through staff members spraying powdered paint during the color run or bent backwards in limbo contests, but it was obvious for the parents and children who attended.
“This is the first time we have been able to be a family since my son was diagnosed over a year ago,” said Cora I. Cancer had essentially ripped apart the fabric of her family’s life. She spent so much time in the hospital with one son that his three brothers had become jealous, sullen, and worried at the same time. They fought constantly. At the Chai Lifeline Family Adventure, the oldest three disappeared together after lunch, running to activities and laughing. Cora’s youngest son stayed on her lap as she spoke with a visitor.
“We came because I wanted my boys to meet other boys whose siblings are sick. Here, they are not different from everyone else,” Cora said. She went on to explain that she and her husband, along with the rest of the parents, were enjoying themselves as well.
“It’s great to meet other families here,” Cora said. “When my son got sick, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t have any place to turn to. We met Chai Lifeline and they told us not to worry, that they would help us. And they have.”
“When a child is diagnosed, everything stops,” said Rabbi Mordechai Gobioff, Chai Lifeline’s director of client services, who developed the Family Adventure concept with colleagues Nachman Maimon, program director, and Chai Lifeline’s director of volunteer services Faige Yudkovsky. “These three days are a chance to exhale…we’ve created a safe environment where parents and children can catch their collective breath.”
By the end of the first day, parents had bonded through the zaniest recreational activities that Camp Simcha head counselors Ari Dembitzer and Rivky Schwartz and their staff could muster. At lunch the next day, fathers competed in a 1950’s dance competition, and then everyone joined in for hula hoop and limbo competitions. On a more serious note, Ari Dembitzer organized an eating contest that pitted two counselors against a young boy whose brain tumor had destroyed his appetite center. His despairing parents cried as he refused all food – until eating became fun again.
Throughout the laughter, parents understood how precarious children’s health can be. “I’m just glad I can help,” said Michelle R., whose daughter had finished treatment. “It’s so hard to go through.”
If Chai Lifeline’s Family Adventure is successful, the hugs are only the first step in a community of support for these families. “This is the new normal,” child psychiatrist Dr. Abraham Bartell said about living with a sick child. “Decide what you need, and let people help you.”