Springfield Jewish Community Center camp brings joy to diverse population, including children from Ukraine and Afghanistan
Matthew Grochowski has been attending the Jewish Community Center’s summer camp since 2015, with the exception of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic closed the traditional camp.
“I was shocked. Not devastated, but shocked,” said Grochowski, a 15-year-old from Somers, who enjoyed activities in the final week of the 2022 camp season at JCC on Dickinson Street.
“It was a lot of fun. I made a lot of new friends here and bonded with other kids,” Grochowski said. “My favorite activities here are swimming and all sports. Everyone here is awesome in their own way.
This is perhaps the key phrase of the JCC summer camp, often known as JCamp: “in their own way”. Day camp celebrates individual skills and interests through group activities.
The camp has always welcomed children from various backgrounds, but the need this year is more relevant 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 from Ukraine, who moved to Springfield in June, are using camp to bring some normalcy and stability to their lives. Most of the other international campers are Afghans.
At least one young Kurd from Syria participated, and there were representatives from southern African countries.
Of the Afghans at this year’s camp, almost all believe they cannot publicly disclose their names and whereabouts for fear that family and loved ones still in Afghanistan will face reprisals. One Afghan girl who appreciated the opportunity to have fun in the summer was Manzalyfah, who only gave her first name and lives in Greater Springfield.
“I came here last year and I didn’t speak English when I came,” said the 13-year-old, who will be entering seventh grade. She speaks good English and says math is her favorite subject.
“It’s been fun. My favorite activity is swimming and the camp also helped me learn English,” said Manzalyfah.
For Ukrainian Mariia “May” Terlyk and her 5-year-old sister, Yelyzaveta, the camp was a respite from the upheaval of leaving a war-torn nation where their father remains.
“I feel better here. I love swimming, sports – all sports,” said 13-year-old May Terlyk, who has developed a fluency in English.
As grateful as she is for the friendship and activity in Springfield, her home is Ukraine and she can’t wait to come back. Even with the war raging, she said her family plans to return, possibly as early as this fall.
” I can not wait. But the people here, they’ve been so friendly,” May Terlyk said.
The last day of JCamp was Friday. As world events created a more diverse membership this year, Amy Stec said the mission has always been to include.
“We offer camp activities and learning and early learning programs for children of varying abilities,” said Stec, senior director of the JCC Family and Youth program. “Sometimes we need translators, and we’re working with the Jewish Family Service (of western Massachusetts) to put that in place.”
Campers include young people who need and benefit from individual attention, either one-on-one or in pairs with camp staff members. Sometimes their development grows to a point where they no longer require such individualized attention.
Stec said including children of varying abilities or with special needs is integral to the camp’s mission. It falls under “Kehillah,” the Hebrew word for “community,” which creates a program within a program every summer.
“Kehillah” is another name for the community center’s special needs department, which offers 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 avenues for better communication, said Seth Stutman, director of marketing and memberships.
“Music, dance and sport are universal languages. It becomes easier for displaced children to learn a new language because in what we do so much transcends language,” Stutman said.
The camp has operated for over 100 years, first as a day camp at Wilbraham and now under the auspices of the JCC. In recent years, it has peaked at 330 campers per week.
This year, more than 200 children participated in the camp each week. The eight-week program featured a different theme each week for children as young as 5 years old.
“We offer a (weekly) sports camp, or an art camp, or the traditional summer camp experience,” Stec said.
As JCamp answers the call to help resettled children, especially from Afghanistan and Ukraine, help for displaced families is also coming in from other sources.
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst received a grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation to replicate a refugee welfare program for displaced people who resettled in Hampden County.
Working with the Ascentria Care Alliance, a husband and wife team created a social and emotional wellness intervention program. Kalpana Poudel-Tandukar, associate professor at 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, developed and tested the program with the local Bhutanese population
The program will now be designed to help 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 to reduce mental health disparities among vulnerable populations and will introduce techniques to reduce stress, solve problems, improve communication skills, social networking and promote health.
The JCC summer camp has a different mission for the same vulnerable populations, while integrating resettled children into a camp that also remains popular with local residents. Attendance at J-Camp has doubled since 2021, when it had to regenerate after the COVID-19 pandemic closed the traditional camp in 2020.
That year, with in-person camp ruled out, the center created “Camp in a Box,” with games and activities packed for families and children isolated by the pandemic. In partnership with the 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 award scholarships to select campers to attend at a 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 all camp members over the summer.
The Stec expects the camp population next year to continue its growth rate and likely return to pre-pandemic levels. As it does, the Jewish Community Center is prepared to meet all the needs of a camp population that is diverse both geographically and in ability.
“Inclusiveness is at the heart of everything we do,” Stec said. “This goes for children of all abilities and from other countries, as we have seen. Our staff is ready to provide these children with an enriching experience, based on all of their abilities and needs.