When Camp Closes : Navigating the loss for you and your community and the opportunities that lie ahead

By: Dr. Daniel Klein
Licensed Psychologist
Board Member, Tamarack Camps
Talk given for JCCA Camp Professionals
May 21, 2020

Two and a half weeks ago, our camp leadership made the courageous and difficult decision to cancel our summer programs. I recognize most of you have recently made the same or a similar announcement. The article I wrote about closing camp and the opportunities was inspired by several weeks of conversations I had with our camp director, Lee Trepeck,  and the words I shared at a series of town halls that Tamarack conducted immediately following our painful announcement. This talk expands on my thoughts for camp professionals. Writing the article was a way for me to cope too.

I want to talk with you about the emotional experience of closing camp for the summer and the important needs and opportunities I believe that families and camps have moving forward. I’m going to frame the context you been working in while navigating so many considerations leading up to your tough decisions. I will discuss with you how understand and support our communities and ourselves. I will talk about how to approach so much uncertainly that confronts us and our constituents. Finally, how we can continue to fulfill our missions, impact our communities and be a part of the coping and healing process.

The decision to cancel a summer season is heart breaking. Heart breaking for your campers, your staff, the communities you serve and for you, the camp professionals. I fully appreciate the year round work and dedication that goes into running a summer camp. From camper and staff recruitment, to logistics, to fundraising, to facilities management to program planning and much more, we know the work of camp goes far beyond the magical eight weeks of the summer.

Like all of you, I continue to feel the loss in so many ways:

The disappointment of a board member and donor who gives of themselves to further a mission they deeply believe in.

The sadness of alumni and community members who feels such happiness in seeing the legacy of impactful camp experiences and  identity formation carry on each and every summer.

A spouse who looks forward to getting some needed time to reconnect. When I became I camp parent , I think I finally learned one of  the last of camps best kept secrets. While camp is for kids, the time that kids are away at camp is for the adults.

As a child psychologist, knowing the critical role camp plays in the lives of kids and especially in those who may struggle emotionally and socially. Camp is kids happy place.

As a parent, who had to break the news to their kids they would not be able to return to camp this summer.

When the decision was made, I sat through many zoom calls with our officers, executive committee, board, and camp committees. The last call was with over two hundred summer staff who were just weeks away from their much anticipated summer. Many inspiring young leaders who had put off internships and higher paying jobs. Watching their stunned faces as our compassionate professional staff spoke might have been the hardest moment. I kept thinking about the staff who finally got that job they wanted. Or the staff that knew this was their last summer.

Whatever role somebody in our camp community plays,  this is a major loss. Nobody has a playbook on how to navigate these incrdible times.

As we all try to deal with this pandemic as a society, many emotions arise. Anxiety, fear, vulnerability sadness, frustration, anger, disappointment and  grief are on one end. On the other end is love, caring, inspiration, connections, optimism and hope.  Both ends have an important place as we try to get through this challenging time as emotionally healthy as we can. I will be talking about both.

Early on in the pandemic, I participated in several town halls and talks with parents. As the situation unfolded, my recommendations to parents was to keep in mind the need for empathy, flexibility and patience.

Empathy in that we need to be understanding what kids, schools, and communities  were trying to process in real time. Families were suddenly faced with losing all structure including, extra-curricular activities and religious school and the prospect of losing much more. Grandparents were not allowed to be around their grandkids. Parents were losing their jobs. People we know were getting sick and some dying in our communities.  Social distancing became our new norm.

For the first several weeks parents and schools were trying hard to figure out what I was calling the “temporary new normal.” With no notice, families went from overscheduled children to unscheduled children. Schools and parents were trying to figure out how to provide and facilitate virtual education, the new role of technology in their family, how to balance jobs and childcare and  how to cope with a sudden change in financial stability and security. All while we were feeling vulnerable to getting sick.

As the situation unfolded, camps were quickly faced with the question of whether they would be safe to run this summer while quickly shifting into a  survival mode. Medical task forces and consultants were engaged.  Zoom calls from morning to night. Camps were forced to create new budgets with the prospect of no camper revenue.

Just like with schools and parents, there was no road map or point of reference for camps. Faced with an existential crisis, camp professionals and their leadership sprang in action working around the clock while our communities were continuously speculating if there would be camp. As families coped with so much anxiety and unknown, the idea of camp still happening provided some needed hope.

In the weeks leading up to our cancellation I heard a variety of predictions and approaches with the looming question of whether camp would be cancelled. Some parents and campers would tell me there is no way camp would cancel. Some believed that camp might open late. Some campers and families were busy coming up with the perfect plan for camp to open safely. What if each village sleeps and eats together and is not allowed to be around other campers? What if you do 5 day sessions per group?  How about just starting camp in July?  What about family camps?  Everyone gets a day at camp? As the weeks went on, I would ask my kids what they were hearing. Clearly, many of their friends saw cancellation as an inevitability while not wanting to accept it.  Other kids I spoke with felt camp would still happen and couldn’t conceive of a cancellation.

Unfortunately, the need for hope was trumped by the vast challenges to try to run camp.  The first thing I was taught at camp, and a guiding principal, was the idea of safety first. As the decision was made to cancel our camp, most in our community have been understanding and supportive.

Although many were anticipating the decision, the day camp cancelled is amongst the toughest. The emotions are real and raw. Disbelief, sadness, anger, questioning,  denial and understanding. Yet another loss to Covid. The feelings for many is grief. No, this is not the same as an actual death. But, for many of our campers there is deep sorrow.  After the annoucment, social media lights up with heartfelt emotions. When my camp cancelled, I had one my friend share a photo of eight campers in one screen shot with tears streaming down all their faces.  This just didn’t seem possible.

Many of you are familiar with Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s stages of grief. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.  This model is helpful in understanding the emotional experience. You may have seen many or all of these stages play out with your camper families and staff.

In these days after camp cancels, what our campers need is for their parents, caregivers  and those close to be present, attentive and available. Validation of what they are feeling, empathy, hugs (virtual or otherwise. ) Say things such as “I hear you,” “this hurts so much,” “this is so incredibly disappointing,” “this is so hard to believe.”  This is what kids need from their camp professional too. Join with them. Match what they are feeling.

Most kids will need to share their emotional experiences. This is important.  For some, talking about feelings is easier and other kids, they might need help from their parents. Some won’t be ready and many, especially teens, will lean more on their friends.  For others, it may take time to talk about the losses. While, we or they, might feel is very intense emotions, I suggest avoiding extreme words like “devastating”  and “catastrophic”. We want to match what  kids are feeling while modeling a resolve that we will recover and heal.

For camp professionals, the needs are very much the same. You need to talk and process too.  For some of you, camp and your extended camp family, may be the center piece in your lives. You live and breathe camp.  Some of you have never had a summer without camp. For the past many weeks, you have been charged with taking camp, the very thing you spend your year building, apart behind the scenes while creating a plan for the survival. All while putting on a brave and reassuring face to your community. One way of coping can be by throwing ourselves into our work. Many of you have likely been working around the clock. The days since Covid has very much felt like a camp day, where each day can feel like a week. However, this time there is no singing or color wars. You’ve had to hold the emotions of your campers, staff and community. You’ve had to make or endure painful decisions with budget cuts, including furloughs and layoffs of people you care deeply for. You’ve had to be a rock.  This is a collective trauma you and your communities. I would suggest it’s absolutely critical to take care of yourselves and make sure you are supported.  I will talk more about this later.

Coping through the stages of grief is not linear. We can move around the stages.  As our camper families and professionals get through this tough time we need to recognize this will be a process. I know that might sound cliché, but it’s true. For campers, they may feel another wave as the school year ends or during a time in the summer. It may come when they should have left for camp, over July 4th or a birthday they typically spend at camp. There may be anger as they hear that some camps chose to stay open.  Some of your staff have not experienced a summer without camp.   There will be a great void to fill.

Most, if not all of us, have experienced loss. You can use those experiences to help you think about how to cope and support ourselves and others. We can even follow some of our Jewish approaches to grief to help us. I think about a Shiva where we share stories and great memories. Don’t be afraid to encourage kids to connect with their camp friends and family and talk about what they will miss. Share photos, videos and stories. Have campers and staff talk about what they love at camp. It’s ok to talk about what they will miss and feelings about camp. This is healthy and helpful. Experiencing the enduring feelings that camp elicits can help kids cope.

For a first time and/or anxious camper, there could be both relief and disappointment. Some kids that were uncertain about attending camp might feel their anxiety go away. From the lens of helping with anxiety, we should use this as an opportunity to share how proud we are of them for being willing to try something to new and unfamiliar. We can let them know they will get another chance.  Signing up was a success.

For new and returning campers, it’s ok to provide hope for the future while recognizing they may not be ready to hear about how they will have many more summers. Kids are focused on the present and adults need to meet them where they are at.

One of the big questions for kids is what happens next summer. Will I get a chance  to do the program I am missing? For staff, the question of whether  they get another chance for that coveted position that had finally attained this year. A new elephant in the room will be whether there will be camp in 2021?  For now, we can just validate and hear the questions and concerns.  It’s ok not to have answers and acknowledge this will take some time. “These are great questions you are asking. ” “I know how hard this is not hearing an answer. We want to give this a lot of careful thought and just don’t know yet.” Encourage campers and staff to share their ideas. Send out surveys. You will likely hear lots of opinion from campers, staff, board members and your community.  Listen with an open mind knowing decisions will ultimately be made with our heads and hearts.  Remember that out of a crisis often comes opportunity. There is an opportunity to review how you operate, the systems in place, the programs you have. This summer will afford a unique time to consider possible changes and enhancements. You may gain some new perspectives on your summer programs.

Don’t be afraid to share some of the vulnerability of our camps. Our community may not explicitly know that camps are not structured to financially weather a cancelled summer. Allow and promote financial opportunities to donate. This is a great way to give the community  something concrete they can do to help. I’ve seen amazing approaches to this already from so many of you.  This is where us lay leaders come in as your teammates who can share the burden.

Now I’m going to talk a little bit about uncertainty which has been a hallmark of the pandemic: We know that intolerance of uncertainty can make people vulnerable to anxiety. A study during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic showed that people who had a harder time accepting the uncertainty of a situation experience higher anxiety. The solution is for people to practice uncertainty in their daily life. The anticipation of a camp summer forces kids and young adult to manage uncertainty each year. Will I get the program I applied for? Who will be in my bunk? Who will be my counselor? What will my cabin look like? I share this with you to let you know that while the uncertainty of the Covid 19 situation is really hard, tolerating the unknown as it relates to camp in the short term can provide benefit in the long term.  However, I wouldn’t recommend necessarily using this information to share with parents at this time. Many may not be ready to hear it as they long for certainty. As my sister said to me recently, “I don’t want I hear one more person or psychologist tell me how this helps to build resiliency in kids.” Yes, we will one day learn how these months of coping with the pandemic will help build resiliency in many. However, this has been an extreme way to do that and not the way psychologists or anyone would have designed it.

For kids with mental health concerns, the same principals apply for parents as what I mentioned earlier.  Parents should check often with their kids in the days and weeks ahead. For sure when summer officially starts and kids have less structure. Dramatic changes in functioning, such as mood, sleep, appetite, behavior, academics or if a parent feels uneasy, are signs for the parent to call their child’s doctor or talk to a mental health professional.

While the mental health of your individual campers and staff is part of the charge you take on in the summer,  at this time,  I would suggest the role of camps is to provide information and connections to community supports if needed. For example,  Tamarack has put box with a link to Jewish Family Services in all our community communications.  A positive for myself and my colleagues has been the ability to use telehealth to effectively continue our important work in supporting mental health. We were already in a mental health crisis and the needs will be greater than ever.

As we have seen as a nation, there are different ways that communities have been approaching their Covid responses. What has emerged are some divergent opinions. While the choice to close camp may have felt like the only responsible choice for some camps, other camps may view just the opposite. They may feel they are being responsible by opening their camp in a way they deem safe. I know some camps will be running family camp programs on their campuses. So much careful thought and emotion is wrapped into each camp’s decision. I would encourage camps to be understanding and respectful of one another and keep the tendency to pass judgement in check. Camps will need to continue to learn from each other to face the great challenges ahead.  We may learn new and surprising things from the camps that do stay open or create new models. There will be benefit to all of us when we do re-open.

Now I would like to talk about the path ahead: I mentioned earlier about two main emotional experiences, grief and hope. We’ve talked about grief and now let’s shift to hope. There is a strong need for hope for right now: Hope this pandemic will be over soon. Hope for a vaccine. Hope of a return to our normal activities. Hope for the intimacy of in person connections. Hope that we can go back camp soon.

This is where camps come in and can help families fill the void. We can readily identify what we have lost, turn the list upside down by looking at the opposites. This shows us what we can strive to create and regain. Now our hope can now be filled with substance.

Fortunately, in the recent decade, camps have been repositioning themselves to engage the entire lifespan and look beyond the two months of summers. From family camps to alumni days and weekends, to social media platforms, to fundraising events, the foundation is already in place for community engagement outside the confines of however many acres a camp may hold. In the short term, camps can help families capture the essence of the Jewish camp experience and serve as a continued inspiration.

No, camp, in the way that we know it, can’t be recreated virtually. No different than schools can’t be recreated in the same way without a building and an in person environment. Some parents may ask for virtual camp while others may reject the idea. Some camps are offering a full virtual program. Virtual programming is a tool and can continue to be a great vechicle to connect and deliver programming.  I do know that camp professionals and staff are amongst the most creative people I have ever known. My family has benefited from some of Tamarack’s virtual programming. As we’ve been living through a period where every day can feel like the same, I have never felt so much meaning in a kabbalat shabbat through virtual services led by our camp. Virtual Havdalahs have created a meaningful way to reflect and launch into a new week, with all that is uncertain. The sounds of the summer on a guitar is soothing for so many.

While some virtual programing can be helpful, we will need to aware the experience is different than in a camp setting. Summer is about unplugging and we have all been plugged in more than we ever imagined. We are going to have to balance staying connected virtually versus the need for disconnection from technology.  If you try virtual programming, be mindful that the lessons of camp might be felt differently and should be thought through as you would at camp. For example, while a competition at camp might provide kids with lessons and support on how to manage the emotions that arise from competition, there is no in person come together moment like at the end of a camp program.

In my opinion, the golden opportunity that lies ahead for families this summer is to reflect on why the camp experience is so important to their children, young adults and themselves. Sometimes we can take things for granted and don’t appreciate them until they are gone. When we lose something important, we often cope by reflecting on what we learned and the memories. There is so much that can be gained from the core of what camp provides and further integrated into our families.

In the coming weeks, my suggestion to families is to talk with their kids about what they get from camp. Why is the camp experience so important to them?  Parents should reflect on this as well.  Is it about connecting  with friends? Being authentic and our best selves? Trying new things? Unplugging?  Informally integrating more Judaism in our lives. I would encourage you to consider asking some of these types of questions of your families in a communication, such as on your social media or in a newsletter.  Put out challenges. This can help facilitate a path forward right now. This can help target programming. This can inspire.

If we can help parents and kids approach the coming days like camp would, with creativity and resourcefulness,  families can tap into the spirit, essence and even some of the magic of camp.  Talking with their teens and young adults  about how we can be more authentic and vulnerable in our relationships.  Reaching out to better get to know a neighbor or family.  Going fishing or on a hike. Come up with a new arts and crafts project.  Looking up at the sky at night. Having a Havdalah where emotions are shared.

Camps can facilitate this process even remotely. Encouraging and helping with creative programming a family can do together or with friends.  Many parents and kids will be longing for structure and things camplike this summer. Challenge families to share a video singing a camp cheer and a photo of a family campfire. Provide scavenger hunts, theme days, and shabbat music.  I know there is a call going on about camp in a box for families right now. This will be helpful to many.

Consider safe and appropriate ways where staff members could provide mentorship or role modeling to younger staff or campers. You likely have a whole cadre of summer staff that are willing and able to help. This could look like a virtual reunion with staff present or having staff create program ideas for the community.  I recognize there are risk management concerns that would need to be vetted out.  Skier has put out guidelines on virtual programming. The coming weeks are the time to continue to think outside the box in how camps can fulfill their missions.

In short, the great opportunity camps have right now is to inspire families in a way that can refelct the core values of your camp. At the end of the day, camp is about people and relationships.  This is baked into your mission and why the bonds of camp are so strong. If you can help families create stronger bonds during the pandemic, you are meeting a great challenge and fufilling an important mission.

Lastly, I want to talk about one of the best ways you can support your community: taking care of yourselves. You will continue to be leaned on and under enormous pressures now and into the future. Navigating uncertainty is tough for everyone. A recent article was published describing camp directors as superheroes. I couldn’t agree more. The reality is you are human too. Remember Batman may have his amazing strength and armor, but he still hurts emotionally and physically on the inside. You’ve taken in a lot of late. That must be acknowledged.

In the summer, I don’t know how much you sleep or eat. Many of you thrive off the incredible energy of your camp. Camp can be an eight week adrenaline rush. However, this is not the same. For the past two months, coincidentally the same amount of time as a camp summer, the demand on your time and mental energy has been extreme. You have been working longer hours under immense pressures and making pain staking decisions. This is extremely stressful.

So, my final message  is to please attend to yourselves. Practice self-care. Listen to your mind and your body. Make sure you are taking time away for yourself. Exercise.  Practice mindfulness. Stay connected with friends and family.  Stay connected with your staff. Stay spiritually connected. Empathy, flexibility and patience goes for you too. Pace yourself.

Give yourselves time to manage and grieve all you have lost. You may find  liveing  in the denial stage easier as you work so intensely.  Put  aside time for grieving and the tough emotions. It’s ok to be angry and sad and go through your own stages of grief. This will help with your mental well-being and make you more emotionally available personally and professionally.

Continue to gain support from one another and share your experience with your trusted circles. Continue your cohort calls. Sharing emotional and traumatic experiences can help with resiliency and perseverance. There is no shame in seeking professional help. Your camp and our communities need you more than ever.  You will continue to provide the hope and bright light.

I would like to conclude by sharing one my favorite activities when I was a camp counselor to nine  and ten year old boys: fire building. I really found great enjoyment teaching kids about gathering tinder, kindling and fuel and then building the fire. Kids would be paired up and assigned to gather one type of wood. Every camper would have a role in creating the fire. Often they would be gone for 10-15  minutes and come back with two small twigs and ask, is this the right size? Actually that was not my favorite part.

What I loved doing was choosing a child who would learn how to safely light a match for the first time and start the fire. Often this was confronting a fear. I would usually choose a camper who needed a little boost or might be having a tougher time.  If we were lucky,  it was a one match fire or in tougher conditions in would be a many match fire. Later that evening, I would point out to the group how they all had an important part in building that amazing fire. I would ask campers to raise their hand when I called out each type of wood that was gathered. I would point out how each group member had an important part of creating something special from nature.  Lastly, I would pull the camper aside who lit the match that started the fire. I would then say: do you see that amazing fire that we cooked dinner over, told stories around and is keeping us warm? You started that! Well, what do you think about that? How does that make you feel?

In the coming weeks and months, you will be putting together that campfire. The tinder may be the campers and families you continue to engage. The staff are the kindling that reinforces the camp spirit and creativity and really gets things going. The big logs or fuel is the community that will help sustain your camp. Ultimately, it will be you, the camp professionals who will strike the match, lighting the inspiring campfire once again. And when the flames are providing noursihment, light and warmth again and you experience the healing with your camp, you will smile. Your campers and staff will smile. Your communities will smile. You will have started that!  What will you think about that? How will that make you feel?