I spent this past Memorial Day Weekend eating mediocre food (no offense to those that prepared it…it was what it was), sleeping on essentially a piece of wood and feeling like I was never going to feel or smell clean again but it was the best Memorial Day Weekend ever!
I had the honor and pleasure to participate as a volunteer at Camp Jenny, a 4 day camp experience for students from F.L. Stanton Elementary School in Atlanta on the URJ-Camp Coleman property in Cleveland, GA. I made mention of it in a blog back in February after my daughter had won a film festival award for her documentary, Earning Jenny, about this absolutely amazing program. And as I said then, it was definitely a #ProudMama moment. (If you would like to view the video, please send a request by clicking here. I promise it is worth 7 minutes of your time.)
So call me crazy but…I thought I really knew and understood everything about Camp Jenny after hearing all of my daughter’s stories upon returning home every Memorial Day Weekend for 6 years…all 4 years in high school as well as after her freshman and sophomore years in college. Seeing her go through the process of creating the documentary and watching the end result?…Honestly, I didn’t think it was possible to get any more emotional about it.
Clearly I was wrong because when the buses pulled up to over 270 screaming teenage counselors and adult staff (yes, that’s 120 more counselors and staff than campers) and those kindergarten through fifth grade kids are just in awe of what is unfolding in front of them, I became an absolute puddle of tears.
My daughter did warn me. And so did all of the Camp Jenny leadership, especially during the 24 hours prior to the campers arrival. They also warned us that many of these kids have never left Metro Atlanta, some haven’t even left their neighborhood and most are more afraid of the woods than they are of the dangerous streets they cross every day to get to school.
So it was our responsibility to make sure they all felt safe…
…from the time they got off the bus on Friday when many would be crying because they were homesick or simply afraid of the unknown
…until the time they got back on the bus on Monday when they would be crying because they didn’t want to leave after having so much fun or sadly, for some, because of the reality of what is waiting for them back home sets in.
David Haller, the first director of the program when it was established in 1988 and still a very active part of the leadership team, took us through it’s history on the eve before they arived and outlined the four simple yet powerful goals…There is no doubt we set the groundwork to meet #1 and #2 in the years to come. They already have 28 years of documented proof that they have, in fact, not only improved but drastically changed the direction of so many children’s lives, children that insist the days they spent at Camp Jenny between the ages of 5 and 10 gave them the confidence and strength to overcome the odds of growing up surrounded by things like drugs and drive by shootings, get through high school, go on to college and lead very successful lives.
Think about it…even if one child earns the opportunity to go every year they will have spent a total of 24 days at Camp Jenny over the course of their elementary school years. So what if that one child goes on to get a full scholarship at Stanford and do stem cell research? Yeah, that happened…all because of Camp Jenny. Impactful for sure!
I grew up never having to think for a minute whether there would be food on the table, clothes on my back and a roof over my head so there is no way I can ever really know what it is like for these kids on a day to day basis. But I can certainly imagine it and that, of course, breaks my heart.
At the same time, my heart was overflowing with joy as I watched the kids learn something cool about science…
And learn how to make superhero super muffins and fruit burritos…
I spent two full days as a cooking specialist and while that certainly isn’t a stretch for me in terms of the skill set required, I really had no idea how exhausting it would be to have one group after another come through the tiny kitchen. I was so fortunate to have 3 younger staff members there to truly own it. They were absolutely amazing with those kids. If you are reading this Lexi, Daniel and Roni…thanks from the bottom of my heart. Even though it took for us to run out of butter for you to believe that the muffins would, in fact, taste better with mashed bananas as a replacement (and essentially cut all of the fat out of them), I think you are all SUPER! That said, remember…#mamaknowsbest 🙂
I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t give a huge shoutout to all counselors who totally brought serious energy and enthusiasm to the activity. I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to get excited about baking powder …but they did…and that filtered down to the campers for sure!
You know what else filters down to the campers? The theme chosen for the weekend. This year it was Be Your Own Superhero. They made it very clear to the campers that you don’t need a cape or a mask to be your own superhero but they certainly looked adorable “flying” around camp in ones made by their counselors and they got to decorate.
And channeling their superhero powers…WOOSH!
The counselors, of course, were all about the costumes…
These are high school kids giving up not only their Memorial Day Weekend but also for a few seniors attending their graduation ceremonies. The co-directors, chosen by their peers via an election at an annual convention for the National Federation of Temple Youth – SAR and STR Regions, work tirelessly all year to make sure every T is crossed and every I is dotted.
Remember the goals above? #3, build a generation of young leaders, is absolutely in motion.
#4 from that list of goals? Improve our own lives? Well, I was on my way to dinner last night when I saw that my daughter had tagged me in a Facebook post. She rarely does that so I was obviously very curious and then cried as I read these words…
One final shoutout to my mom, Beth Blacker for going in my place. It meant so much to me that you were finally able to experience what it’s all about!
If that doesn’t improve a mother’s life I don’t know what will.
Actually, her being there with me next year would be a fantastic improvement. Unfortunately she couldn’t make it this year. She’s in the midst of working on her senior film thesis so college took precedence. Her spirit, though, was definitely felt and I’m thinking my name tag should have just said “Jamie’s Mom”…I can live with that!
Possibly the only thing that could improve upon my Camp Jenny experience and, in turn, my life would be to have my son and husband join me and my daughter and make it the ultimate family affair. I was so jealous of the other parents there with their kids. At various points in time I was definitely “adopted” by them especially these three families and I really can’t thank them enough.
The mothers all met at Camp Coleman and have remained friends through the years. Their children essentially grew up together despite living in three different cities and all very much embody what Camp Jenny is all about.
Suffice it to say Camp Jenny not only improved, but changed my life. My brain absolutely has not shut off since I left two days ago with thoughts of how amazing it would be if there could be hundreds of programs exactly like it around the country. I know some do exist but I’m hard pressed to believe they have quite the intensity I felt.
To all of those incredible children, I wish you a wonderful summer and best of luck earning the opportunity to be back for #CJ2016. For those that have “aged out”, as announced during the closing circle on Monday, you can return to Camp Jenny in high school as a counselor. So do what I’ve always said to my kids…make good choices and make your parents proud!
That’s it for now…#BlackerOut!