Ten-year-old Adrian is about to partake in a flour fight between those staying in his cabin and another cabin-full of boys. He has never been to camp before because he is from a poor, minority family in south Phoenix, an area where fights among youth often involve weapons much more dangerous than flour.
He has just learned a new game called "ga-ga," spent an hour frolicking in the swimming pool, and been drenched on his inaugural canoe trip. With an ear-to-ear smile on his face, he says quietly to himself, "This is so cool."
Amid the cool, tree-filled quiet on the perimeter of Prescott lies a haven where kids like Adrian have discovered that wonders do happen. In this place, children who are withdrawn, angry or depressed often blossom into happy, fun-loving kids. They cross the cultural boundaries that are so deeply chiseled in their neighborhood and make friends with children of all races.
Here, high school students and 20-somethings are miraculously transformed into the diametrical opposites of today's stereotypically selfish youth. Teenagers eagerly take time off of their summer jobs, give up the comforts of home and spend $140 to be with a bunch of 9- to 11-year old kids. College students and recent graduates voluntarily give generously of themselves for no financial reward.
It is a place where piggyback rides are the standard mode of transportation, and where hugs, hand-holding and kind words from someone who was a total stranger just days ago are the norm. The feeling of love is overwhelmingly apparent after spending only a few minutes there.
The place is Camp Swift, which is operated on the grounds of Temple Beth Israel's Camp Charles Pearlstein for two four-day sessions each summer.
"Give them all the love they can take and all the food they can eat" is the motto of Camp Swift, and that is exactly what the staff and counselors try to do for the campers.
Camp Swift, which began operation in 1980, provides a summer camping opportunity for up to 300 underprivileged inner-city Valley children each year. It is run by the Mitzvah Corps Foundation and the Southwest Federation of Temple Youth (SWFTY), the youth organization of the Reform denomination. At the second session this summer, June 5-8, there were 100 campers and 80 staff members.
The counselors are high school-age members of SWFTY from Arizona, Texas and Nevada. The majority are members of Temple Beth Israel, Temple Chai, Temple Emanuel, Temple Kol Ami and Temple Solel. The support staff are former SWFTY members, and the volunteer cooks are parents of the counselors and support staff.
Staffers also find rewards
Ironically, the counselors pay for each session they attend, while there is no cost to the campers or their families. This, along with corporate sponsorships and private donations, pays the $25,000 cost of running Camp Swift each year, says director Laura Drachler. The support staff members do not have to pay, but since they are all former SWFTY members, they have paid in past years. All Camp Swift positions are voluntary.
The counselors and support staff say they receive great personal rewards for their investment of time and money.
Craig Hymson, a "unit head" who has been working at the camp since 1984, says, "Camp Swift epitomizes my Jewish experience of tikkun olam (repairing the world). Each group of kids is a new chance to make the world a better place." He also says he likes the fact that the camp gives SWFTY students, who are mostly "privileged white Jewish kids," an opportunity to interact with kids from different socio-economic backgrounds with whom they might not otherwise come into contact.
"When the campers leave, they can take some of that good feeling back to where they are from," says support staffer Randy Silver, who is spending his sixth year at Camp Swift. In his first summer, there was a ceremony at the end of the session in which each child spoke about his or her camp experience when a candle that was being passed around came to him or her. It was then, when "all of the kids started crying, that I felt camp is worth it and we are making a difference," he says.
Like most other summer camps, the kids participate in activities such as swimming, canoeing, nature hikes, arts and crafts, singing, dancing, cookouts, silly games and a Robes course (a military-style obstacle course).
The children are referred by the Phoenix Boys & Girls Clubs, Wilson Elementary School, Crockett Elementary School and Child Protective Services. Campers are eligible to attend each year when they are 9, 10 and 11 years old.
Some of the kids don't have all the clothes and supplies they need for the four days, so they visit Krazy Keppe's store, where everything is free. The counselors go over a checklist with each child upon arrival, and each necessary item that a camper is missing he or she gets to pick out from the store. The campers take home whatever they pick.
The individual SWFTY groups collect donations of used clothes for the store through the year. Some synagogues, such as Temple Solel, donate toiletries.
Good decisions stressed
Although the outward focus of Camp Swift is for the kids to have fun, there is a definite underlying message calling on participants to make good decisions, such as staying in school. One of the activities each cabin group must participate in is a values course.
Wendy Heller, a support staffer in her sixth year at the camp, gives each camper a blank piece of construction paper cut in the shape of a puzzle piece. The campers and counselors are asked to write down three of their role models, three words to describe themselves and three goals for their future.
One 11-year-old girl characterizes herself as strong because her mother has a drug abuse problem and she says she doesn't let that sadden her about her own future. The girl wants to go to Harvard and to be a good mom.
Another camper, 11-year-old Jennifer, names three of the camp counselors as her role models and says she would like to work at a camp when she is older.
Debbie Glasser, who served as co-head cook with her husband Mitch this summer, says her motivation for working at Camp Swift is "because I need a reason to cry." She says many of the cooks rearrange their schedules, including taking off of work, to be there.
Lea Nach has been involved with the camp since its inception. She describes one of her most touching memories while choking back tears.
"One summer I was cooking when a little boy tried to come in the kitchen. I told him he couldn't be in there because of health regulations, but he insisted he needed to, so I asked him what he wanted. He handed me a bunch of flowers he had picked and said, 'I need to give you these. I picked you flowers because I have never had so many people who cared.' "
For more information on the camp, call Danny Adelman or Richard Traulsen at Begam, Lewis, Marks and Wolfe, 254-6071. Tax deductible donations can be made to Camp Swift, 4508 E. Redfield, Phoenix AZ 85032.