Matthew Grochowski has been attending the Jewish Community Center Summer Camp since 2015, with the exception of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the traditional camp.
“I was shocked. Not devastated, but shocked,” said Grochowski, a 15-year-old from Somers, who enjoyed the activities of the final week of the 2022 camp season at the JCC on Dickinson Street.
“It’s been very much fun. I’ve made a lot of new friends here, and connected with other kids,” Grochowski said. “My favorite activities here have been swimming and all sports. Everyone here is awesome in their own way.”
Perhaps that’s the key phrase of JCC Summer Camp, often known as JCamp: “in their own way.” The day camp celebrates individual skills and interests within the framework of group activity.
The camp has always welcomed children of diverse backgrounds, but the need this year has been more pertinent than ever. More than 20 campers come from other countries, including Afghanistan, where the Taliban takeover last year forced countless families to flee, and war-torn Ukraine.
Two children from the Terlyk family, of Ukraine, who relocated to Springfield in June, have been enjoying the camp as a way to bring some normalcy and stability to their lives. Most of the other international campers are Afghans.
At least one Kurdish youngster from Syria has participated, and there has been representation from southern Africa nations.
Of the Afghans in this year’s camp, almost all feel they cannot safely make their names and whereabouts public for fear that family and relatives still in Afghanistan will face reprisal. One Afghan girl who appreciated the opportunity for summer fun was Manzalyfah, who gave only her first name and lives in Greater Springfield.
“I came here last year, and I did not speak English when I came,” said the 13-year-old, who will be entering the seventh grade. She speaks English well and says math is her favorite subject.
“This has been fun. My favorite activity is swimming, and the camp has also helped me learn English,” Manzalyfah said.
For Ukrainians Mariia “May” Terlyk and her 5-year-old sister, Yelyzaveta, the camp has been a respite from the upheaval caused by leaving a nation plunged in war where their father remains.
“I feel better here. I like the swimming, the sports - any sports,” said 13-year-old May Terlyk, who has developed English fluency.
As grateful as she is for the friendship and activity in Springfield, her home is Ukraine and she aches to return. Even with the war raging on, she said her family is making plans to return, possibly as early as this fall.
“I can’t wait. But the people here, they’ve been so friendly,” May Terlyk said.
JCamp’s final day was Friday. While world events have created a more diverse membership this year, Amy Stec said the mission has always been about inclusion.
“We offer camp activities and early learning and programming for children of varied abilities,” said Stec, senior director for the JCC Family and Youth Program. “Sometimes we need translators, and we work with Jewish Family Service (of Western Massachusetts) to set that up.”
The campers include youths who need and benefit from individual attention, either in one-on-one or paired settings with camp staff members. At times, their development grows to where they no longer require such individualized attention.
Stec said including children of varied abilities or with special needs is an integral part of the camp mission. It falls under the heading of “Kehillah,” the Hebrew word for “community,” which creates a program within a program each summer.
“Kehillah” is another name for the community center’s special needs department, which provides enrichment programs for children, teens and adults.
Relocated families have different needs as they blend into the larger program. For resettled children, the nature of JCamp creates pathways for better communication, said Seth Stutman, marketing and membership director.
“Music, dance and sports are universal languages. It becomes easier for (relocated children to learn a new language because, in what we do, so many things transcend language,” Stutman said.
The camp has operated for more than 100 years, first as part of a day camp in Wilbraham and now under JCC auspices. In recent years, it peaked at 330 campers per week.
This year, well over 200 children attended the camp on a weekly basis. The eight-week program featured a different theme each week for children as young as 5.
“We offer (weekly) sports camp, or art camp, or the traditional summer camp experience,” Stec said.
While JCamp is answering the call to help resettled children, particularly from Afghanistan and Ukraine, help for displaced families is also arriving from other sources.
University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers have been awarded a grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation to replicate a refugee well-being program for displaced people who have resettled in Hampden County.
In collaboration with the Ascentria Care Alliance, a husband-and-wife wife team has created a social and emotional well-being intervention program. Kalpana Poudel-Tandukar, associate professor in the Elaine Marieb College of Nursing, and Krishna C. Poudel, associate professor of community health education in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences and director of the Institute for Global Health, have developed and tested the program with the region’s Bhutanese population
The program will now be designed to assist displaced Afghans and Ukrainians.
Ascentria Care Alliance, which has offices in West Springfield and Worcester, offers community programs for refugees and immigrants in Massachusetts. The intervention is designed at reducing mental health disparities among vulnerable populations and will introduce techniques for reducing stress, solving problems, improving communication skills, social networking, and encouraging health.
The JCC Summer Camp has a different mission for the same vulnerable populations, while integrating resettled children into a camp that remains popular among local residents as well. Attendance at J-Camp camp has doubled from 2021, when it had to regenerate itself after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the traditional camp in 2020.
That year, with in-person camp ruled out, the center created “Camp in a Box,” with games and activities packaged for families and children isolated by the pandemic. In partnership with Jewish Family Service, boxes for 225 low-income or refugee families were produced.
“We participate in the Seven Hills (Foundation) voucher program, which allows us to awards scholarships for some campers to attend at reduced cost, or for free. We also offer scholarships on our own,” Stutman said.
This year, a total of $62,772 was given to 89 campers - more than a quarter of the entire camp membership over the summer.
Stec expects next year’s camp population to continue its growth rate, and likely return to its pre-pandemic levels. As it does, the Jewish Community Center is prepared to fulfill all needs for a camp population that is diverse in both geographic and ability-based ways.
“Inclusiveness is central to everything we do,” Stec said. “That goes for children of every ability level and from other countries, as we’ve been seeing. Our staff is prepared to give these children a worthwhile experience, based on all of their abilities and needs.”