There and Back Again: A UMC Journey

by Liora Silkes
Participant, Urban Mitzvah Corps New Jersey 2013

For as long as I can remember, I have gone to camp. Day camp, overnight camp, Jewish camp, girl scout camp, drama camp, smart kid camp, I’ve been to them all. But even with all of my experience, the two camps I worked at this summer were nothing like I had ever been to before.

IMG_20130702_131803_695My first three weeks were spent at Play S.A.F.E. For six hours a day, my co-counselor and I came up with activities for our 20 eight-year-olds to do. Sometimes we went to art, or soccer, or reading, but a lot of the day was passed sitting in the same classroom playing board games. The first few days were hard, and it took me a little while to understand the rhythm of the camp. Soon, however, I fell in love with Play S.A.F.E. I worked with the sweetest campers, became great friends with my co-counselor, came up with new games to play, and all too quickly my three weeks came to an end. I walked away from Play S.A.F.E. with a completely different mindset than I had going into it. Yes, I had made an impact on the campers, but the camp made its impact on me as well. Never before had I spent so much time with inner-city kids, so along with the usual learning experiences a new counselor goes through (how to control a loud, chaotic mass of children), I also learned my kids’ backstories and a little bit of Spanish. The differences between their casa, house, and mine stayed with me just as much as all the expected cute and funny things that my young campers said.

After coming back from the RAC trip, I started work at Camp Daisy. If going from my camps to Play S.A.F.E. was like switching from decaf coffee to regular, the difference between Play S.A.F.E. and Daisy is like drinking decaf and then drinking a monster. While the staff-to-camper ratio at Play S.A.F.E. is ideally 1:12, at Daisy it can get to 2:1! My job was no longer to keep a head count on small children racing around a playground, but instead to focus on just one camper at a time, helping them color a picture, put on sunscreen, or even walk from room to room. Daisy is a much calmer environment, and gave me the opportunity to learn a completely different set of skills. Most of the campers do not have the social skills their peers have mastered, and in helping campers who ramble on and on about only one subject or when with a nonverbal camper, I too was learning new skills for how to talk with others. This past Tuesday was the last day of Camp Daisy, and saying goodbye was really hard. Although I didn’t have an extremely close bond with any specific camper, and many of them will probably forget me in the next few weeks, I will always remember how I made them laugh and they made me smile.

Since Camp Daisy finished on Tuesday, several days earlier than the volunteering portion of UMC, I had the unusual experience of getting to go back to my first job site, and it turned out to be my best day of work at UMC so far. When I left Play S.A.F.E. and Daisy, I was proud of my work but felt like I was gaining more from this learning experience than I was giving back as a volunteer. As soon as I stepped back into my old classroom, I knew I was wrong. The other counselors were smiling and welcoming me back, and the campers were beyond ecstatic. All day I gave them hugs and high fives and listened to them tell me about what they had done since I had left, and how they wished I was there. And not just me. Campers from all over the site who were in groups with other Mitzvah Corps volunteers came to me multiple times to ask that since I was back, where were Ms. Rachel and Mr. Ben? When I said they would not return, the campers looked very put out.

In working at a fairly small Play S.A.F.E. site and at Camp Daisy, I struggled a little with feeling like I was making a difference and not just making the camps overstaffed. Once I returned to Play S.A.F.E. , however, I knew I, and all of UMC, have been making a tremendous difference in  New Brunswick. We may not get the instant gratification that comes with building a sidewalk, but all 43 teenagers who have participated this summer have left as much as an impact on the area as it has impacted them.

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