1/7/2019 - A Camp Rapid Response Network

Camps and camp professionals have an incredible set of skills to help communities respond to and recover from major disasters. We have a ready-made community to channel resources and support. We know how to provide nurturing spaces for kids, especially when things are tough. We can build fun and meaningful experiences with the most limited of resources and in no time at all. And we know how to make people feel safe and cared for. So how can we work together to use our skills, resources, and networks to support communities in times of need? I propose that we create a Camp Rapid Response Network, with the primary goal of establishing pop-up day camps so that parents can take care of their needs while we take care of their families.

When I was a Sr. Assistant Director at URJ Camp Newman, I had the opportunity to help build such a thing. After Hurricane Harvey in Houston in August 2017, URJ Greene Family Camp and the JCC of Houston set up a pop-up day camp at Congregation Emanu El in Houston. The Hurricane Harvey Houston Day Camp ran for approximately 10 days and provided a safe space for approximately 300 children a day. I got a call about helping to keep the camp running right before the start of Labor Day weekend. Can you be on a plane tonight to Houston? It was game on for me from that phone call, ready for an adventure and a chance to contribute in a real way. Many of the professionals from Greene and the JCC, who had set up the camp, were also affected by the hurricane. They needed a chance to take a step back and deal with needs that they had at home The camp provided space to play, with kids separated into age groups. We served three meals a day and invited families to stay and eat breakfast and dinner. We offered a wide range of activities, from playground time outside, arts and crafts, song sessions, goofy games that only someone who has been to camp would understand how to pull off. It was staffed by volunteers, including students from Rice University, teens from the congregation, and other community volunteers. From activities to infrastructure, by biggest takeaway when I arrived was how much it all looked and felt like camp. I was charged with running the kitchen. With a die-hard team volunteers, including many women from the sisterhood, we were able to get Sysco to deliver enough food to feed people. I had the most fun with the kitchen volunteers, kibitzing over coffee as we crafted ways to make good, healthy food en masse. The women from the congregation sisterhood ran circles around me. Camp had certainly prepared me to work 14 hour days, but t was their energy, skill, and passion that made it happen.

I remember speaking with Loui Dobin, Executive Director at URJ Green Family Camp and one of the principle drivers of the camp, about how much it felt like any other camp. We agreed that this was the way that we as professionals could be the most helpful for people in their time of need. The idea for the camp came in response to the community’s needs for space for kids to go so that parents could take care of the things they needed to move forward after disaster.  The camp served two important missions; allowing kids to begin to process the trauma around them, while allowing parents to know that their children are safe while they take care of their needs (dealing with FEMA, sorting through wreckage, locating missing family members, etc.). I was and still am inspired by this process; that such a great idea came from a group of community leaders asking the community how they could help best. Delivery matching real need, process driven by those it intends to help.

I have also seen this idea replicated in two other disaster response situations since then. During the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County, Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa set up a pop-up day camp at the congregation (big shout out to Malcolm McElheney for making it happen). That fire destroyed much of the city of Santa Rosa, as well as Camp Newman. But that didn’t stop us from bringing the feel of Camp Newman to the congregation. During the Woolsey Fire, I along with Alex Rogers, a former Newman Assistant Director, were brought in to help set up a day camp with Congregation Or Ami and de Toledo high School. Each time it ran, the essential function was the same; provide a safe and nurturing environment for kids to be kids.

We must create a network of camps to make this project possible, to share the idea, and put the building blocks in place for a quick response in any location when the community decides that it is needed. In this network, camps will have the opportunity to live out their values of building community in a time of need doing the best thing that they know how to do.