I first learned about Camp Simcha and Chai Lifeline from a post-college roommate about 20 years ago. She was a teacher and during her summer break she was the head waitress at the camp. Not understanding why kids in camp needed waitresses, she explained to me passionately that the overnight Camp Simcha was unlike any place in the entire world.
Camp Simcha (not to be confused with the local day camp at Congregation Beth Israel) is for Jewish kids experiencing catastrophic or chronic illness or who have extensive medical needs. It is a place where kids can celebrate childhood despite their medical challenges surrounded by top medical staff and counselors with endless energy and enthusiasm. Campers can even receive chemotherapy on the premises if needed. They need waitresses because if a camper wants something not at the buffet, it gets ordered for them from the kitchen. Onion rings for breakfast? Coming right up!
Simcha means, “happy” and Camp Simcha takes “happy” to a whole new level. Campers look forward all year long to pools equipped for wheelchairs, helicopter rides, carnival day, celebrity concerts, art, candle making and Shabbat. While there may be other camps for sick children, Camp Simcha is able to provide all of this in a Jewish environment where kosher food is served and Shabbat is observed and celebrated.
Chai Lifeline is the parent organization that runs Camp Simcha. It provides support and social services nationally to families of sick kids, communities and schools who have experienced a trauma, and recently to kids of sick parents.
Chai Lifeline understands that illness affects the whole family and even has mini-sessions of Camp Simcha for siblings as part of their “Sibs” program.
Sheva Gralnik, director of volunteer services and programming of Chai Lifeline’s West Coast region, recently came to Phoenix where she met to discuss volunteer opportunities with the students of both Shearim Torah High School for Girls and the Yeshiva High School of Arizona, as well as at a private home with community members. Opportunities available to those who complete a vetting process include event planning, hospital visitation, meal delivery, tutoring and transportation. According to Gralnik, Chai Lifeline is currently serving 10-12 families in the Phoenix area.
A few years ago I was asked to write an article about Team Lifeline, a charity created in order to financially support Camp Simcha and the huge budget that it takes to provided medically fragile children with a summer camp experience.
Joining Team Lifeline requires an obligation to raise $3,600 to participate in the Lifetime Miami Marathon, the New York Marathon, the Rock ‘n Roll Las Vegas Marathon, or $4,400 to participate in America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride in Lake Tahoe. I decided that the following year I was going to support a charity I believed in while challenging myself to become the athlete I never was. I have now completed the half-marathon in Las Vegas four times, last year with my husband and eight other team members from the Phoenix area. This coming January, I plan to complete the half-marathon in Miami in memory of my father.
I am determined to become a runner this year. I have walked most of the 13.1 miles in the past. Committing to a distance-challenge for a cause allows you to benefit your own health while benefitting the health of others. It keeps you committed to training regularly and watching the burned calorie count rise on the treadmill is an added benefit.
I’ve learned many lessons from participating in Team Lifeline. A real challenge is something you really aren’t sure you can do. You can be inspired by strangers to push harder than you ever have before, by watching them do the same. It’s a blessing just to be able to walk or run. Finally, there is no feeling like crossing a finish line – especially with Camp Simcha alumni by your side.
Amy Dubitsky is a freelance writer based in Phoenix. Contact Chai Lifeline West Coast for information on volunteering and services at (310) 274-6331 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Team Lifeline or to sponsor a runner, visit teamlifeline.org or email the author at email@example.com.