Our chief executive Neville Goldschneider in the Jewish Chronicle
As we head towards a Pesach which we can, at last, spend with family and friends, I find myself reflecting on the way life has changed, but also how far we have come, since Covid struck.
At Camp Simcha we are planning our family summer residential retreats for the first time since 2019, as well as our first ever sibling retreat. We know how transformational retreats are for the seriously ill children we support and their families, so we have been determined to reinstate these to our core services as soon as possible.
I think unless you have a child with a serious medical condition, it is hard to imagine the added burden Covid-19 inflicted on our families, who already had so much to contend with.
When we first locked down in 2020, Camp Simcha – like so many charities in the community – quickly adapted to ensure we could still provide the vital services our beneficiaries needed. We also worked to establish virtual communities and group programmes to mitigate against the additional and brutal sense of isolation that our families felt, with their vulnerable children.
For some who were geographically restricted from attending in-person events, this remote provision has been a positive that we will continue to offer, but nothing quite creates that sense of community and peer support that you get from being together in-person.
Residential retreats are special in a way that is hard to put into words. At Camp Simcha we ease the burden for our families practically, but also emotionally. We believe the power of positive experiences can have a hugely therapeutic benefit for children dealing with difficult treatments; siblings struggling with unsettled family life and parents who feel they may never see another carefree moment.
Retreats offer a programme of unbelievably exciting events for children, as well as relaxation, respite and support for parents, in beautiful surroundings, with all their child’s medical needs catered for.
As well as Camp Simcha staff and a doctor on site, each child has a trained Big Brother or Sister volunteer taking care of them so that parents can truly relax and recharge – enjoy our ‘dinner-for-two’ night, while seeing their children having a joyful time. For some of our parents whose children need round-the-clock care, it is a rare opportunity to spend quality time with each other – but it also gives them the time and space to meet and really talk to other parents in similar situations.
This is something our families really missed in the two years where we could not run our full programme of face-to-face activities. We have families, from a broad religious spectrum, who form friendships at retreats that last for life.
In the past two years we have seen a dramatic increase in referrals; over half of the family members we have supported during the pandemic were new to Camp Simcha during this period. Until recently, many of them have never felt the benefits of just physically sitting and talking to someone who understands exactly what they are going through.
This is one of the drivers for the establishment of our new sibling retreat.
Siblings are often the forgotten sufferers when a child is ill; they have to accept that their parents’ attention is often needed more urgently with their sick sibling and frequently they take on the role of susbsidiary carer, or they keep their own worries to themselves so as not to burden their parents.
Sadly, we do see a mental health impact on some siblings of seriously ill children – and while several of our other services, such as therapeutic art sessions; dedicated volunteers for siblings, and our sibling activity groups, are specifically designed to mitigate this impact, we felt there was more we could do.
This new sibling retreat will not only be a wonderful, activity-filled few days of respite from the pressures at home – it will give these young people the opportunity to feel special in their own right, to talk to other siblings, and potentially form bonds with others who can really relate.
And while they might be too busy having fun to even realise that benefit, we know the difference it makes.
We talk about the Camp Simcha family – and this is exactly what we mean. While the crisis meals, hospital transport, respite care and therapeutic services are crucial, and the parties, trips and outings bring hope and joy back to families’ lives at such a dark time, I believe it is the sense of family, of being part of a community that retreats cement, which truly helps fight that feeling of isolation that having a seriously ill child can bring.