When a child arrives at camp for the summer, they may not just be shlepping along duffle bags and backpacks, but other baggage as well. The mental, emotional, sensory and social health kind.
For that reason, Camp Barney Medintz and URJ Camp Coleman are grateful for a new Yedid Nefesh (beloved soul) grant funded by The Marcus Foundation through the Foundation for Jewish Camp helping to address mental health at camp. The North Georgia camps are among 32 selected from more than 90 applicants for the first round of $3.2 million in grants designed to help camps address mental, emotional and social health (MESH).
Camp Barney also received a $55,000 Yashar (level, integrity) Initiative matching grant from the FJC and The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation to help offset costs in creating a sensory space building, grow the camp’s inclusion team, and create high-quality professional development training focused on the inclusion of campers with disabilities. Matching funds for this initiative came from Gail and Lyons Heyman.
Only 15 Jewish camps received $2.8 million in funds to increase access and promote inclusion of campers and staff with a range of disabilities. The camps also commit to increase their number of campers with disabilities to at least 5 percent of the total camp population, according to FJC.
Camp Barney Director Jim Mittenthal said, “The reality is that we value a child’s mental health for 12 months out of the year.” That includes the 11 months children are with their families and the two or four weeks at overnight camp, he said. During the time away from camp, children with mental health issues or other disabilities receive intervention from parents, clinical professionals and psychotherapists, among others. “It would be a missed opportunity to not have that same level of support system at Camp Barney.”
Considering Camp Barney also has doctors and nurses on staff, Mittenthal said it made sense to also create a department at camp for mental health professionals. Last summer, through a grant from the Ron & Lisa Brill Family Charitable Trust, the camp hired five such community care staffers and about a month ago began construction of an 800-square-foot building overlooking one of the camp’s lakes.
“It’s a place they can exhale,” he said. Campers with sensory issues can escape the noise or social pressures that sometimes accompany camp activities by donning noise-canceling headphones or snuggling under a weighted blanket, known to calm anxiety, he said. Or they can chat with a mental health professional. There will also be a relaxing water feature and rocking chairs.
The building is expected to be completed in the spring in time for camp, Mittenthal said.
The Yedid Nefesh grant also will allow Camp Barney to add activities such as art projects that “enable kids to express themselves,” yoga, meditation, theater, journaling and listening to, writing and performing music.
The new mental health clinicians will continue to train and offer strategies for counselors for addressing mental health issues. Before last year, visiting mental health professionals and Mittenthal, formerly a child and family psychotherapist, trained the staff and camp counselors, he said.
Issues of mental health might include homesickness. “For a child it does not get much harder than that. It feels as challenging as any illness. A counselor might notice aggressive behavior that has nothing to do with kids in their cabin or at camp. It might be a reflection of his or her chemistry, family dynamics or peer relationships.”
Camp Coleman Director Bobby Harris said the Yedid Nefesh grant allows the camp to add more staff to its “camper care” team. It also enables them to “more readily and more frequently meet with families prior to camp” and address concerns related to emotional and mental health, “to set the family and the camper up for success.”
The grant will allow for better communication with the family on an ongoing basis. “Having the resources to have those conversations is important so whatever shows up, camp is prepared for it.”
Harris said that some people believed that simply by sending a child to camp, they would be cured. “It’s a myth because whatever is going on in their life doesn’t just go away.
“If they are depressed, that’s not just going to go away; relationship or family issues are going to show up” at camp. “No one can anticipate exactly what will come up, but we’ll be more capable to respond to it,” he said.
The grant will also allow for staff training on mental health and social issues throughout the year instead of just the seven days before camp begins.
In the future, the camp will create more private meeting rooms and safe spaces for campers to call their therapists or meet with a social worker. The grant “allows us to dream what we want to do.”
FJC CEO Jeremy Fingerman said about the Yedid Nefesh grants, “We’re thrilled both Camp Barney Medintz and URJ Camp Coleman – both large, leading Jewish camps – have been selected for the first round of this important initiative. Led by highly respected, veteran directors, we feel confident that their participation and experiences will help inform camps across North America and our broader Jewish community.”