Summer Camp: Sunny with a Chance of Bubbles
The boys are shouting and giggling as they head into the pool. Shai squirts water from a Styrofoam noodle, as Sam slowly rolls down the ramp into the zero-entry pool in the water wheelchair to join his peers. Counselor Sammy Kritzer calls, “One, two, three,” and gently tosses Daniel into the water.
Outside, two boys emerge from a mountain of bubbles, smiles on their faces as a collection of bubbles floats skyward.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, while Chaya shows off her egg cracking skills, Emma adds chocolate chips to the rest of the ingredients in her mixing bowl and pours the batter into a greased foil tin, ready for baking at home. The table is strewn with flour, sugar, eggshells, baking powder, and oil.
Bubbles! Swimming! Arts and Crafts! STEM workshops! Baking! Playground! This summer, Friendship Circle has extended its summer camp to four weeks. With its brand-new indoor zero-entry swimming pool, it is now the place for all kids to have an awesome fun-filled summer.
It’s not something Dara Rosenzweig of Springfield takes for granted. Her son, Carl, needed a change from the summer camp for typical kids he had been attending. His self-confidence had dropped, and he was acting out. Looking for an alternative, she found LifeTown. Although the first day was “a little rocky,” she said, she was struck by how the staff responded. “Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out,” she remembers them telling her. “They were comforting me.”
It wasn’t long before she started to see Carl return to himself. Within just one week, changes were evident. “Now my son feels included and loved and he comes home a different kid, expressing himself, using words so much more,” said Rosenzweig. “He’s really learning how to react and he doesn’t even realize it. He just knows he loves camp and can’t wait to go in the morning.”
With one-on-one attention, therapists on staff, creative activities, and a facility designed to meet the needs of all children, LifeTown is equipped to do what few others can. “We don’t turn anyone away,” said Chavi Rosenblum, program director. “We provide a place these children feel at home, with the love and encouragement that helps them thrive and flourish.”
What started in 2002 as a one-week respite for kids with special needs known as Allie’s Camp, named for beloved participant Allie Rosenfield who died in 2006, has slowly expanded. This summer, the addition of a zero-entry pool with features like temperature control, spray jets, even sensory sensitive acoustics, gives everyone a chance to enjoy a quintessential summertime experience.
“I try not to be in tears all the time when I come here,” said Bajine Florestal, a private aid who accompanies 10-year-old Matthew and his brother, 7-year-old David. “It’s really hard to find services like this. They’re being exposed to so many things here. You can see the happiness on their faces – all they talk about at home is camp. LifeTown provides a safe space where parents can drop off their kids and not worry because they have so much support.”
This year, summer camp began on July 31 and ends the week of August 21. During that time, about 90 teen and 50 adult counselors and staff will have served 90 participants, averaging 30-50 campers per week.
It’s hard to find anyone not passionate about camp. Counselor Sammy Kritzer, 14, had a smile on his face as big as his camper’s throughout swim time on a recent morning. “It’s a lot of fun working with kids. It makes you feel good because you know you’re helping people,” he said.
Even the lifeguards feel a sense of purpose beyond the job. Jerry Meranus, 17, a student at Morristown Beard, has been lifeguarding for several summers already. “I like using my certification for a good cause,” she said. Used to working at country clubs, she added, “It’s very different here. I feel a big sense of purpose here, watching over kids with special needs.” And she is impressed with the water safety protocols. “They have a really good system here. It’s extremely safe because each kid has their own buddy.”
That is one of the things Malky Blesofsky loves about camp for her daughter. Hinda, 4, loves the water. “It’s her favorite part of camp,” said her mother. But because of her issues, it can be dangerous. “For her to be in the water in a safe way– it’s a really big deal,” said Blesofsky. Hinda also happens to love baking, crafts, and other activities. “She goes happy and she comes home happy,” said Blesofsky. And camp has had an impact on the whole family: Hinda’s siblings look forward each day to see what Hinda has baked. “The whole family gets to experience together what she did during the day!”
Families with children who have special needs often feel isolated from the Jewish community, where opportunities for atypical kids to participate can be limited. Because Hinda attends public school, Blesofsky welcomes the Jewish immersion at camp, from the values baked into the programs to activities like baking challah for Shabbat and davening. “To be able to learn and have fun in a Jewish environment – that’s something she could not get anywhere else,” said Blesofsky.
Meanwhile, Carl Rosenzweig cannot get enough of camp. Looking ahead, he is already asking about continuing to attend programs at LifeTown when he returns to school in the fall. It’s a no-brainer for his mother, who agrees that they’ve found a home at LifeTown. “I’m definitely signing him up!” she said.