Jordan River Village: The place in the Middle East where seriously ill children can just be kids.
By Avigayil Kadesh
Jordan River Village, high up in Israel’s green Galilee, is the newest member of the global fraternity of free sleep-away camps for seriously ill children started in the United States by the actor Paul Newman. The camp has been operating since August 2011.
The only one of its kind in the Middle East, Jordan River Village (JRV) has much in common with the other sixteen SeriousFun Children’s Network camps — 24-hour medical supervision, swimming and drama, sports and crafts.
One counselor tends every two or three campers, kids between the ages of nine and 18 with cancer, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, familial dysautonomia, neurological disorders, rheumatic diseases, heart diseases and other life-threatening or chronic conditions. The children do all the activities of a regular summer camp, but under medical supervision.
Yet it’s different, too. For one thing, it’s not just a summer program. Because of the temperate climate in northern Israel, JRV has been able to offer 20 week-long sessions since its first one last summer. CEO Katia Citrin says that, when it’s up to full capacity, JRV will annually serve approximately 3,500 children, assuming a full roster of 96 per session.
But it’s also different because – as a byproduct of the intense week of fun and camaraderie on 61 pastoral acres – JRV presents a unique opportunity for Jewish, Muslim and Christian children to bond in friendship.
“Before we had our site in Israel, we sent eight groups of children to a [SeriousFun] camp in the States,” Citrin explains. “Each group typically had four Jews and four Arabs. The father of one Arab girl was extremely worried about how she’d cope. She wasn’t fluent in Hebrew, let alone English. When she got back, he told us she had a fantastic experience. He said that if we would leave the problems of the Middle East to the children, we would have had peace long ago.”
Archery at Jordan River Village
Fun, empowering and safe
Originally called the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp when Newman started this charitable program in 1988, SeriousFun has become a global network of permanent recreational villages.
The Israeli branch was founded by Marilyn and Murray Grant, who moved to Israel from Connecticut in 1971 and labored since 1999 to get the program funded and established. Israeli government assistance helped get it started, and continues to support its construction. The actor Chaim Topol (best known internationally for playing Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof”) chairs the board, which oversees hundreds of volunteers along with 15 paid staffers.
JRV’s stated goal is “to enrich the lives of Jewish and Arab children, in Israel and in the neighboring countries, suffering from serious illnesses and life-threatening conditions by creating free, fun-filled, memorable, empowering, medically sound and safe camping experiences.
Unfortunately, it’s not hard to find plenty of potential campers. “We work with all kinds of NGOs that deal with sick children, and with hospitals,” says Citrin, “and people also can approach us privately to enroll for a session.”
Because Israel is a small country, many of these kids already knew each other before camp. They may have been roommates in the hospital. But the staff opens each session with ice-breaking activities to make the campers feel comfortable getting to know one another. Though the camp opened only last summer, solid results are already evident.
“An Arab child came as a camper when he was 17 and he had such a great time and liked the idea of coexistence so much, that when he turned 18 he became a volunteer in the village,” Citrin relates.
Celebrating life, together
The primary purpose of the program is also a success, judging by the feedback Citrin gets.
“We had one child, about 12 years old, with chronic colitis. He had missed school for many months and was very introverted and shy. At the end of the session his mother called and said she sent us a ‘wimp’ and received back a man.”
She points out that these are children who cannot go to a regular summer camp. “It is the first time they have slept under the stars and interacted with other kids like themselves. They see that their problem may not be the worst one; other children may be sicker.”
However, the kids are encouraged not to let their physical infirmity define them. “Our motto is, ‘I am not sick; I have a disease.’ And our new public relations campaign theme is about celebrating life,” says Citrin.
Nobody is forced to participate in any activity, but Citrin stresses that “there’s no possibility of failure in our camp. Whatever you do, you succeed. We have an adventure park with climbing walls, ropes and other challenges. Children support other children and encourage them to do these activities. If a sick child can climb a six-meter wall, she feels she can do anything.”
Following the SeriousFun camp experience, children have been observed to react more favorably to medical treatment and address their conditions in a more positive frame of mind. That is significant, because psychological factors can strongly affect a child’s recovery from serious illness, and enhance the family’s emotional well-being.
Citrin says the JRV campers are grouped according to age, with boys and girls sleeping in separate bunks. Activities are co-ed except for children whose families request gender separation for religious reasons.
JRV also offers weekend family retreats and holiday programs geared to Jewish, Christian and Muslim observances, and additional family programs are planned.