It's hard to tell who gets more pleasure from going to Camp Swift - the counselors and support staff, who are predominately Jewish teens and young adults, or the economically disadvantaged 8- to 11-year-old campers. It's a win-win situation for everyone.
The Scottsdale-based Camp Swift Youth Foundation runs a variety of summer and year-round programs, including Camp Swift, held every summer at Camp Charles Pearlstein in Prescott.
Camp Swift began in 1980 when a Jewish high-school senior wanted to help less-fortunate children by giving them a free summer-camp experience. She found a camp in Prescott willing to donate space, rounded up high-school students to be counselors and enlisted their parents to cook and supervise.
Thirty-one years later, Camp Swift holds three five-day sessions every summer, with 150 campers, 50 to 60 counselors and up to 40 support staff attending each session. The campers are provided by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Phoenix, homeless shelters and schools with high percentages of at-risk students.
The volunteer counselors are Jewish high-school students who come from Valley and other Southwest Jewish youth groups. The support staff is a collection of college students who were once counselors, and adults who volunteer their time in the kitchen, infirmary or supervising programs and activities. Most of the adults are parents of counselors, former counselors and support staff.
The teens must fill out an application to become a counselor, says Camp Swift Youth Foundation Executive Director Whitney Jacobson. "If they're in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth), their adviser has to sign off on them. I also check two references," she says. "It's like applying for any job."
After the teens are accepted, they attend a two-day orientation to learn how to handle issues like bed-wetting, homesickness and fighting. "We set them up to succeed," says Jacobson. The orientation also includes CPR certification.
According to Jacobson, Camp Swift has traditional summer-camp activities, including swimming, canoeing, hiking, arts and crafts, sports, rock climbing and a ropes challenge course. In addition, there are daytime and evening programs designed to develop self-esteem and encourage campers to stay in school and avoid drugs and gangs.
Jacobson started as a counselor in 1995 and hasn't missed a session since. In 2004, she was hired to oversee Camp Swift and other foundation activities, which include tutoring, mentoring and after-school programs at several Phoenix schools, all staffed by Jewish teens.
Participating in Camp Swift teaches the teen counselors humility, Jacobson says. "They see another side of the world and learn about people they don't come into contact with on a daily basis."
But the biggest challenge for the teens, she says, is learning to put someone else's needs before their own. At orientation, she tells the counselors, "You're in charge of somebody's most valuable possession and something that is not replaceable, and you have to take that seriously," she says. "They rise to the occasion."
Support staffer and former counselor Michael Evans says many teens come to camp with self-centered attitudes, but by the time they leave realize, "I am not the only person in the world."
Evans says when he started going to Camp Swift, he had no awareness of how lucky he was to have grown up in a comfortable Phoenix home. He didn't realize that some children didn't get three meals a day or have adequate clothing.
Many children arrive with only the clothes they are wearing and without toothbrushes, says Jeff Hawkes, a 23-year-old support staffer. During the school year, counselors collect clothing and toiletries for the campers through their temple youth groups. "We set up a store called Crazy Keppies and let the kids go 'shopping' so they don't feel like they're getting a handout," Hawkes says.
Jonathan Stachel, a 16-year-old counselor who attends Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, says he enjoys being a role model to the campers. "They look up to us," he says. "They imitate everything we do - the way we act, the way we talk, the way we think. It's a huge responsibility."
Bob Bessen, president of the Camp Swift Youth Foundation board of directors, says his three children have participated in Camp Swift as counselors. He says when the teens see the kind of impact they have on the campers, "it's very powerful in improving their sense of responsibility and their understanding of how much difference they can make in improving the lives of those who are less fortunate."
Stachel sees working at Camp Swift as "a way to give back or help in my own way. As Jews, we have a certain responsibility, not only to the Jewish community but also to the (larger) community, to help other people. To be a Jew is to do," he says.
One of the reasons teens return every summer as counselors is because they bond with other Jewish teens from their youth groups and neighboring youth groups, Bessen says. "Even though there is no Jewish theme associated with the camp itself, they're keeping in touch with Jewish friends beyond their bar and bat mitzvah years."
Since Bessen's children have been Camp Swift counselors and support staffers, "I never have to tell them, 'You don't know how lucky you are.'"
For more information, call 480-443-5645 or visit campswift.org.
Marilyn Hawkes is the mother of Jeff Hawkes, who is quoted in the story, and wrote a grant for Camp Swift in 2010.