Attempting to discern next summer’s camp landscape a week before Thanksgiving as COVID-19 rates are rising across the country, including in Greater Phoenix, might seem futile. For that reason, Camp: Destination, founded by Desert Jewish Academy and located on the campus of Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley in Chandler, plans to take a wait-and-see approach next month at its Zoom lock-in when campers and staff come together virtually.
After camp was held successfully on Zoom last summer, Emily Zappa, camp co-director and DJA’s head of school and teacher, feels pretty optimistic about the range of options.
Before the coronavirus pandemic upended 2020’s summer plans, the previous five summers of Camp: Destination offered very full days of activities — 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. — for kids from kindergarten to 12th grade. Campers enjoyed the full camp experience in terms of swimming, activities, field trips, sports and games. Zappa said campers enjoyed the long days for nine weeks each summer, essentially because they are “die hards.”
And regardless of the small changes from year to year, every summer ended the same way.
“We all cry right before it’s over,” Zappa said.
But the camp’s sixth summer was completely different.
Last March, Zappa found herself in over her head with emergency school shutdowns when decisions about camp had to be made. “In full honesty, I had just helped my staff at Desert Jewish Academy into its full remote learning process,” she said.
Zappa initially thought there was no way to have camp with all the logistics needed to keep people safe. Still, that was hard for her to accept as both her son and daughter were involved in the camp.
She credits David Rivas, co-director of the camp and teacher at Pardes Jewish Day School, as the person who “saved camp.”
Rivas and Zappa had to make some quick decisions. There was an initial idea about having an in-person camp, but on a campus that is not set up for small groups separated by a lot of space, it just seemed to go against everything the camp stood for, according to Zappa. Ultimately, it was more important to protect campers and staff.
“COVID hit and we were super sad. A lot of these kids I’ve known since they were 5 and now they’re 18,” said Rivas. “Emily and I wondered how we could bring something meaningful to their summers. We’re teachers, and we said, ‘Let’s just try it online and see who shows up.’”
“We’ll call our staff and see if they’re in and provide a mini-version of normal camp,” Zappa said. “We decided it won’t be a replacement for child care. We’ll have a set amount of hours where we’re all together virtually.”
Even though it took a “whole lot of work and planning,” in the end they were able to cobble together enough of a camp experience, albeit one at home, to make it feel like a simulacrum of Camp: Destination.
“A lot of people showed up, and it was awesome,” said Rivas. “It became this online family where people would sign in a couple times a day and we would do cooking and games. It was a way to keep our camp family together.”
They kept camp free of charge, and most of the staff volunteered their time.
Jennifer LeGrand, whose son Zachary was a camper in his sixth season, said since he “runs a little bit on the anxious side, we had to find a place that would embrace him like family. They’re an amazing, warm group.”
One thing that’s important to her is that Camp: Destination is able to deal with special needs which is a big reason why she recommends it and will send her son again even if next summer is virtual. “Emily has a really warm heart,” she said. “It feels like a family. It’s not just numbers.”
Although there were no kids on campus, staff could safely get together while masked and socially distanced to host Zoom cookouts, teach kids to make complete meals and show them new dance moves.
Kids in the same house were often together onscreen, and Zappa joked that sometimes seeing more than one person in a Zoom box was the boost
“We even had lock-ins at night while we were all watching movies and dancing,” Zappa said.
And the kicker, she said, “We absolutely cried on our last day of camp.”
December’s lock-in won’t be all business. Some traditions are already scheduled, including watching the Disney movie “Heavy Weights,” which Zappa said is a camp tradition. “We watch it every year.”
“Together we’ll decide where we go from here,” she said.
“The thing I love about the camp community is that all the kids and staff who were once kids with us, they all have a stake in what we do,” said Rivas. “I hope we can sit down and brainstorm and come up with an awesome plan we can implement next summer. I hope we can do it in person but if not, that’s okay too. We’re going to keep all of us in each other‘s lives — that’s the Camp: Destination way.”
Ultimately, Zappa said, “camp is so much more than being in a building together. Camp is about having these moments. Really special moments even though last summer the majority were all recorded. Whether we’re on campus or remote, our family will return and be with us again.” JN