Chai Lifeline, the organization renowned for helping families cope with the crises and daily challenges of serious pediatric illness, elevated the simcha of Sukkos for thousands of seriously ill children and their families this week. Across the country, Chol Hamoed activities brought laughter and joy to lives impacted by life-threatening or chronic pediatric illness.1,200 children and adults enjoyed a day at Hershey Park yesterday. Chai Lifeline staff members and throngs of volunteer counselors eager to lighten the load for parents greeted families as they entered the park. Shrieks of delight were heard throughout the day as Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special campers hugged their summer friends and introduced brothers and sisters. Groups of children and counselors made their way to the rides while parents meandered on the walks or brought young children to the toddler play area.
“This must be what camp is like,” noted one mother as she watched a counselor sit on a bench. A child quickly scampered up and climbed onto the counselor’s shoulders. They caught up to another group, several campers and counselors, including a child in a wheelchair, were singing a favorite camp song on the way to the carousel.
“Pure fun,” her husband mused as they listened to the cacophony of happy shouts. They joined the group in time to see the counselors lift the boy out of his wheelchair and settle him in one of the carousel benches. As his counselor sat next to him and fastened the safety belt, a look of radiance could be seen on the child’s face.
Rebbetzin Faige Yudkovsky, Chai Lifeline’s director of volunteer services, spent weeks arranging the outing.
“Children living with illness, whether as patients or siblings, often feel isolated from their peers. Days like this give them a chance to be part of a true peer group. They can establish and cement friendships that will help them throughout the year,” she explained.
Hershey Park wasn’t the only Chai Lifeline scene. The New Jersey region’s bash at Six Flags Great Adventure drew twelve hundred children, parents, and volunteers to the famed theme park.
“There’s something special about going to Six Flags with Chai Lifeline,” mused regional director Rabbi Sruli Fried, LMSW. “Families feel a special bond with one another, and days like this give them an opportunity to share experiences and gain chizuk from one another.”
One of the counselors agreed. “A lot of times, kids with illnesses look different or spend a lot of time out of school. It’s hard for them. At Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special, every kid shines. Every kid is special. Today, these kids, who are sometimes left behind by their classmates, are all stars.”
“We look for ways to give them that great feeling throughout the year,” added Rabbi Fried.
Chai Lifeline West Coast took over Scandia Amusement Park for a day, giving West Coast families a special opportunity to celebrate. Families mingled with Chai Lifeline friends and supporters on the many rides and attractions, where roller coasters vied with magic shows, face-painting and balloon artistry for children’s attention. Guests sang along with musicians Naftali Finkel and Brad Schacter, who brought a special kind of simcha to the park.
“Our families really look forward to this once-a-year event,” commented Randi Grossman, MPH, the region’s director. “They are treated like VIPs throughout the day.”
Chol Hamoed activities included a number of special events closer to home for those who couldn’t get to a theme park – or who just wanted to continue the celebration.
Bais Torah U’tifilah in Passaic, NJ, hosted four hundred children and counselors in their sukkah this week. The music and dancing were accompanied by fun, games, and of course, kid-friendly food.
One hundred Brooklyn girls and their counselors spent a wonderful evening in the sukkah of Aviva Honikman, who donates her musical and artistic talents to Camp Simcha and Chai Lifeline year-round. The sounds of their laughter could be heard throughout the borough as campers regaled their siblings with recollections of their favorite moments at camp.
“Paradoxically, times of simcha are sometimes hardest on children living with illness,” stated Rabbi Simcha Scholar, Chai Lifeline’s executive vice president. “Some children can’t participate because of disabilities resulting from illness, or because they need special care. Other children feel estranged because of the pressures of living with an ill sibling or parent. By bringing them together with loving, trained counselors in entertaining circumstances, Chai Lifeline gives them the opportunity to find friendship, comfort, and acceptance that will help see them through the hard times they face.”