By: Abie Safdeye

They promised me an experience I would never forget. And that’s precisely what it was – an extraordinary time  of giving, sharing in the pain and joy of others, and learning about the magical, therapeutic powers of laughter and love.
 
It all began last year when my friends dragged me to “Deal Day” at Camp Simcha Special, and my reluctance quickly turned to enthusiasm. It was a day of dancing, costumes, and all sorts of fun and gifts that brought fervor and excitement to the otherwise difficult lives of chronically ill children. Inspired by the event, I called the camp’s head counselor to apply for a staff position for the 2009 session.
“Not every day is ‘Deal Day’,” he cautioned.
I replied that my goal was to make it so. He hired me.
 
A Camp in an “Uproar”
Every camper at Camp Simcha Special was born with a chronic illness r.l. requiring constant medical attention. During the two weeks of camp, we work around their special needs and make them feel normal, engaging them in fun activities like other kids. The camp has a pool with a ramp, and wheelchair accessible boats. The program also provides a well deserved break for the parents who tirelessly tend to the children the rest of the year. Parents can sleep easy knowing that their child has a personal counselor and is under the supervision of a superior and devoted medical staff.
During the staff orientation, we learned what to expect and what the campers needed from us. We were also introduced to the term “uproar,” Camp Simcha’s name for the 20 minutes of wild dancing after every meal. The camp treated us to great food, the arcade, game room, free soda machines, a fully stocked canteen, and a gym with blasting music.
At 9am the next day, the campers began arriving, some accompanied by parents. Each of the one hundred campers was greeted at the entrance with a live band, costumes, and sheer pandemonium. What a wonderful scene to behold — kids laughing, parents crying, counselors performing. It was a fitting prelude to the next 12 days.
 
A Twelve-Day Party
At Camp Simcha Special, it’s all about giving the children the time of their lives. Each morning, every child – even if he is wheelchair-bound, paralyzed, or blind – would get down on the floor and break-dance to the bunk’s favorite song. Sometimes the counselors hid speakers around the room and blasted music unexpectedly as the campers prepared for their baths – instantly transforming bath time to party time!
Our job was to make the two weeks into one long party. We didn’t get much sleep, and we spent much of our days doing things like pushing wheelchairs up mountains and carrying campers on our shoulders to the bed, bathroom, speed boats and pool. Some counselors had to wake up every few hours to check feeding tubes or respiratory machines, or to administer medications. One child needed to be dressed, fed, bathed, and even helped in the bathroom. The counselor’s incredibly devoted care created an especially close relationship with the camper. In short, we spent 12 days selflessly giving of ourselves – and receiving much, much more in return.
 
When Sick Children Seem Healthy
Camp Simcha Special offers sick children the opportunity to feel genuine joy. Despite debilitating diseases and uncertain futures, smiles are plastered on the kids’ faces. At times I was misled to think that these little guys were okay, since most of the time they looked perfectly normal. The kitchen staff served delicious meals, but some campers have restricted diets or feeding tubes, are highly allergic to most foods, or can’t digest them normally. Still, the atmosphere in the dining room was so much fun that everyone had a blast at mealtime.
The campers’ accomplishments are nothing short of astonishing. Nothing is more inspiring than witnessing a blind child make a siyum on a Gemara that he learned in Braille. And watching everyone perform in the talent show was an incredible experience.
The End of Camp, the Beginning of a Relationship
During the final few days of camp, signs were posted announcing, “Keep It Tight,” reminding us counselors to keep the intensity going until the very end. The barbeque and camp video at the end of camp was a time of laughter, tears and wonderful memories. No one wanted to leave. One camper said that he was almost glad he needed a feeding tube so that he could attend Camp Simcha Special.
The 12 days of camp were just the beginning of a special relationship with these kids. Counselors call, email and reunite with campers long after camp is over.
The nurses told us that camp keeps the kids going throughout the year. But as much as the camp does for them, it does much more for us. Being involved in Camp Simcha Special was truly a special privilege, and an experience I will cherish forever.