How do summer camps prepare for emergency situations?

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Having a child at sleep-away camp can be somewhat unsettling for parents, even in the best of times. You know they are likely having a blast, but what if something unforeseeable happens that puts them in harm’s way?

That was the situation facing parents whose children were at the Union for Reform Judaism Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) in Zionsville, Ind. when lightning struck last weekend, injuring three children. One of the three was Lily Hoberman, the 9-year-old daughter of Jason and Michelle Hoberman, who are members of Congregation Shaare Emeth. Lily, along with the two other youngsters, was admitted to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

Lily was released from the hospital Monday afternoon and was driving back to St. Louis on Tuesday. According to Camp GUCI, the two other campers, Noah Auerbach of Louisville, Ky., was released Sunday night and is expected to return to camp later this week. The third camper, Ethan Kadish of Cincinnati, Ohio, remains in critical but stable condition.  

In an email shared with the Light from Camp GUCI, Rabbi Mark Covitz (GUCI Director), Jeremy Klotz (GUCI Board Chair) and Rabbi Jonah Pesner (URJ Senior Vice President) were at the hospital with the children while they were there. The email also said that camp, “It says everything you need to know that Ethan’s sister remains in camp, where her parents know she will be well-supported — and that she’ll have a great time.”

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The camp declined to comment further when reached by the Light. The email was signed be Paul Reichenbach, director of camping and Israel (URJ) and Mark J. Pelavin, senior advisor to the president (URJ).

The Light also contacted several local camps to learn how they prepare for accidents that may affect campers. The Jewish Community Center, on behalf of Camp Sabra at Rocky Mount, Mo. on the Lake of the Ozarks, emailed the following statement:

“All of our staff receive CPR and First Aid training and most of our staff members are trained as certified lifeguards.  We have two first responders on staff and work closely with local and regional law enforcement to ensure the safety of our entire camp community.  We worked with Morgan County to install a warning system for impending weather risks and, in fact, received funding from our own J Associates for an Early Warning System on campus for impending weather emergencies. In a partnership relationship with the Rocky Mount Fire Department, Sabra has a fireboat on our property as well.  We run drills at various times during the summer to ensure that all staff are prepared for emergencies at all times.  It’s also important to know that we have several medical professionals on staff at all times and a brand new Health Center that opened just this summer which is well equipped to handle medical emergencies.”

The camp also noted that preparedness paid off in the summer of 2009 when it experienced an outbreak of the H1N1 flu.  “It’s rare that we are forced to implement the training we receive, but it was wonderful to see how staff members performed in very challenging times,” the email continued.  “We made decisions based on the input of our medical advisors and then communicated directly with parents to be sure their children’s needs were met.  In that case we made the decision to close the camp so we could fully clean all facilities and start fresh a week later.”

Emergencies and accidents sometimes happen at camps, said Jenny Wolkowitz, the St. Louis representative of Tips on Trips and Camps (www.tipsontripsandcamps.com/author/jenny/), a national organization that evaluates camps by visiting them and studying the measures they take to ensure that the camp experience is as safe and beneficial as possible. Wolkowitz is also immediate past president of the Light Board of Trustees.

“What matters is how the camp director responds,” said Wolkowitz, who was reached while visiting camps in Pennsylvania and New York. “In one case, a camper was swept out to sea by a freak wave at a camp in Hawaii. The camp didn’t handle it well, and there was a big lawsuit.

“In another case, a camper in Michigan drowned. The director immediately reached out to the family and also contacted all the parents to tell them what had happened. That was a completely different response.”

Two things are key, said Wolkowitz: the safety procedures and staff training each camp has in place and the way it deals with emergencies.

“As much as camps prepare, there will always be unusual circumstances,” she said.

That can mean storms, fires, vehicle accidents, swimming and boating incidents, even earthquakes and the gamut of natural and man-made disasters.

What matters most, she said, is how well prepared camp management is to handle those mishaps while reassuring campers, their parents and staff.

“Whenever things out of the ordinary happen, that causes everyone in the industry to look at what they have, to reassess their own safety procedures,” Wolkowitz said.

When she visits a camp, Wolkowitz said she looks for several things, like how important safety is to the staff. It’s the whole spectrum, she said, from the physical aspects to the harder-to-evaluate qualities of mental and spiritual health of the campers and the staff.

“I want to see how the staff interacts with the kids,” she said. “If there is a kid off by himself, does a counselor go over and talk to him?”

Rabbi Mike Rovinsky is director of Camp Negeela Midwest, a non-Orthodox Jewish camp in Marshall, Ind., for Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated children that’s in its seventh year. He said it took two years to prepare his camp for accreditation by the American Camp Association(www.acacamps.org/), a leading national organization that reviews camps and their standards and procedures.

“You have to have a plan for everything that might happen,” Rovinsky said. “The safety of the kids always comes first. If a child is hurt, we have to take care of the kids who might have seen what happened. We have kids meet with their counselors. We also may have to deal with the staff, some of whom may be feeling guilty. And then we have to have a procedure for contacting the parents.”

Then there’s trying to figure out what happened.

“After all the emergency stuff has been dealt with, we have to ask what we could have done differently,” Rovinsky said. “We may re-enact what happened.”

In short, he said, every camp should have a plan that covers virtually every conceivable eventuality.

“You have to have a game plan,” he said. “I’d like to believe most camps do.”

Rovinksy, a trained counselor (as well as a mohel in St. Louis) emphasized that at Camp Negeela, the staff and counselors are taught how to look for cues that may show a child is not doing well or that a fellow staff member is brooding about something. He stressed the need for the adults at the camp to be aware and attuned to the emotional behavior of the staff members and the campers.

“The key is to use your brain,” Rovinsky said, and to use sound judgment when dealing with situations that may arise.

As of last year, he said, the camp no longer allows campers to have cell phones or Internet access.

“They get addicted,” Rovinsky said.

However, the camp provides continuous contact with parents. Among the services the camp offers is to allow parents to see pictures of the children on the camp’s website (campnageelamidwest.org/).

Wolkowitz noted, however, that her visits to camps show that while some ban phones and Internet contacts completely, others have found ways to allow some contact by cell phone in limited ways.

“I have been to one camp in Pennsylvania where the kids can have cell phones in their cabins,” she said. “They get one hour a day to call. At another camp, they get a half hour on Sunday. At another, the counselors take up all the cell phones and give them back at certain times. In another, each bunk has a computer.”

She said that some camps have dropped certain activities, like horseback riding and water skiing, because there may be too many dangers that can invite injuries and therefore lawsuits.

“They may not say this, but their insurance has gotten so expensive, they just dropped those activities,” she said.

With most parents having access to the Internet these days, Wolkowitz and Rovinsky both said that searching out the right camp for a child, where safety and a caring atmosphere are paramount, is easier than it used to be.

“It’s all a matter of doing your homework,” Wolkowitz said. “There’s a camp out there for every kid. Some who are very social thrive in a large camp. Others do much better in smaller camps.”

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