As a child I enjoyed my camp experiences. In Boy Scout camp I learned about safety, first aid and to be prepared. As a counselor and senior staffer in Jewish sleepaway camps I was always safety conscious. For over 40 summers as I took campers on overnights in the woods, canoeing and whitewater rafting I never had an accident or even a sniffle despite rain and foul weather. Summer camp has changed a great deal.
Years ago counselors were actually trained. At 16 you were a CIT, at 17 you were a JC and at 18 you were trusted to be a counselor. There were rules—for campers and for counselors. Camp was a rustic experience that was structured around fun activities, sports, arts and crafts, swimming and chinuch. Counselors took their responsibilities seriously.
Today, with the exception of Moshava, Jewish sleepaway camps are hotels for children, complete with A/C and canteens offering full-course meals. Activities are optional as is instructional swim, and counselors are more interested in socializing, texting and sports than in supervising their campers. How times have changed. Camp owners want to fill bunk beds and will allow parents and campers to dictate policy. Visiting Day is whenever a parent wants to come to camp; parents fork over extra money for trip days to take campers out of camp; and grills, TVs, cell phones and refrigerators challenge bunk wiring systems and fire codes.
Freedom is what summer is all about. In 2017 it means freedom from parents, freedom from schedules and freedom from rules. If this is what today’s parents want for their children, fine. But summer camp should not mean freedom from safety.
A good camp will have written health policies and protocols, and all children attending the camp should be required to have had a complete exam by a doctor in the past year and be up to date on all childhood shots. Close quarters can breed a host of illnesses. Are daily showers mandated, especially for boys? Before camp starts, parents should make sure the camp has a detailed health history of their child, including any significant illnesses, operations, injuries, allergies and any current medical problems.
Is there a resident pediatrician? Are first-aid supplies readily available throughout the camp and on athletic fields? Parents should also ask questions about activities. Some camps have high rope courses, rock climbing, extreme skateboarding, in-line skating and freestyle BMX biking. If your child will be involved in boating, swimming or other water sports, for example, you’ll want to know about such things as life jackets, supervision and the ARC and CPR certification of instructors. Does the camp have a release statement that allows them to seek emergency medical treatment while making efforts to contact parents?
For children with allergies, parents should send along Benadryl or Epi-pens for children who could suffer a serious attack if exposed to a known allergen, such as a bee sting. Parents who send medication to camp with their child should know who supervises such things and what the rules are regarding over-the-counter drugs. Another concern for some parents is what their child will eat at camp. Food allergies or anything the parent does not want the child to eat should be clearly communicated to the camp staff. Is peanut butter served? Is candy with nuts available in the canteen?
Most camps are located in isolated rural areas. What are the security measures taken by the camp? Are there night patrols and security cameras? Is access restricted? What safety precautions are in place at cookouts and campfires? Are fire extinguishers prominently available?
Summer camp is a perfect place for sex abusers to groom and abuse kids. Children are as vulnerable to sexual predation at camp as they are anywhere else—perhaps more so, because their parents aren’t there to supervise them. It’s tempting, as a parent, to use euphemisms when describing body parts and functions to your child. But if your child should ever be molested, this “soft” language can actually hurt the investigation—and your child’s credibility as a victim. It behooves you as a parent to teach your child the proper names for “private” parts of his or her body, and that no one should ever touch them unless that person is a doctor or an emergency medical technician.
Parents have an obligation to determine whether or not the camp is accredited, what sort of child sex abuse/awareness training the staff receive, what sort of hiring practices the camp uses (are background checks required?) and whether the camp asks for staff references.
If the camp has a pool, is it well maintained? Is the deep end roped off from the shallow end so it’s crystal clear to little ones where they can swim? Is there adequate adult supervision at all times? Are campers allowed to wander around unsupervised? Is the food served well balanced? Are campers allowed to receive food packages from home? If so, what provisions are made for proper storage in the bunks to avoid infestation?
Do counselors check for hats and sunscreen, hydration adequate rest? How are field trips managed? Do they involve riding on a bus, and does that bus have seat belts? Does camp staff bring emergency contact numbers with them on field trips so that the information is easily obtainable? Much of this is common sense and applies to day camps as well as sleepaway camps. Don’t assume anything. Ask.
Do camp personnel know about health conditions such as Lyme disease, West Nile virus or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever? Camp staff should also be able to spot signs of dehydration, overheating, sunburn, respiratory distress, asthma or other conditions that can occur during rigorous activities.
Illnesses that commonly affect camp life and require intervention include upper respiratory tract infections, vomiting and diarrhea, asthma and allergies, conjunctivitis (pinkeye), poison ivy and poison oak, sunburn and heat-related illnesses. To minimize a child’s risk of developing such conditions, find out which safety measures camps have in place to protect the children in their care.
Thank God that there have been few catastrophes. However, we still hear about the occasional drowning, lost camper or lice epidemic. Summer camp remains a magical, cherished time for children. What happens in camp usually stays in camp. Parents need to insure that camp memories are always positive.
By Rabbi Wallace Greene
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene, his children and grandchildren are “camp people.” It’s a world unto itself.