She might not make you matzah ball soup, but camp mom does provide emotional solace to homesick campers
For many kids heading to summer overnight camp for the first time, the prospects can be exciting: new friends, outdoor activities and natural surroundings.
Oh, and no Mom and Dad.
But what excites some kids may leave others a bit scared. While camps rely on counselors and employees to help kids adjust, some also have “camp moms” to help newbies — and their parents — navigate this new terrain.
Karen Garelik, 43, of Westlake Village is starting her eighth summer serving in this capacity at Camp Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University, but her experience at the Simi Valley camp goes back decades.
“I got into the camp mom experience because I literally grew up at Camp Alonim on many levels, starting there as a camper when I was 10 in 1980,” she said. “For me, the camp mom experience is about helping campers adjust and making things better for them so they will have the opportunity to have the same experience my siblings and I had there. Some of my closest friends are people I met during my summers there. One of my siblings met his wife there.”
Garelik, who is the mother of two campers as well as a staffer at the camp, also serves as youth director at Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks. She said her role is not so much about entertaining the kids while they are there, but giving kids that extra inclination to explore, be creative and to allow them to have the kinds of life experiences they would not necessarily have if they spent their summer at home.
Meredith Raber, a marriage and family therapist beginning her ninth summer as a Camp Alonim mom, said having her own family allows her to work better with campers.
“Being a mom helps you in this situation because you have the inclinations to nurture and to be of help,” she said. “When you are there, and you know these other children don’t have their parents with them, you feel, ‘If these were my children, I would want somebody to be there for them.’ ”
Camp moms know best when it comes to helping kids face doubts or fears when they’re stepping into something unfamiliar, especially on the first days of camp.
“One of the most fulfilling things for me is helping kids get through their initial feelings of homesickness in the first three or four days of camp,” Garelik said. “There’s nothing like the moment where you say something to them that makes something click within them that will allow them to move on and have a great time during the session. The next summer you remember them, but they forget that they spent time with you and are just enjoying the camp experience.”
Camp moms also can be resources for parents who may have concerns of their own, especially if it is their first time sending their child away from home, or their kids send letters about missing home.
“I … love moments where I can tell parents their previously homesick child is doing well and having a fantastic time,” Raber said.
There can be other issues, too. Need your kid’s computer password? Contact the camp mom. See a photo on the camp’s website that makes it look like your child has a black eye? The camp mom can explain that it’s simply paint left over from an art activity.
At Camp Ramah in Ojai, Wendy Rosenthal said she’s spent 45 of the best summers of her life on site as a camper, counselor, unit head and part of the Yoetzet (parent liaison) team. Today, she serves as an adviser to the campers, parents and staff of an edah, or age group, but still refers to herself as a “camp mom.”
Camp Ramah was where Rosenthal, a Kadima Day School teacher and Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust docent, met her husband and where her sons met their future wives. (Her daughter-in-law also works during the summer as a Yoetzet.) As Rosenthal sees it, Camp Ramah offers her a way of educating outside of a classroom environment.
“You walk around, talk to different people and show them how much you care in tangible ways,” she said. “Parents may be nervous about having 17- to 21-year-olds be totally responsible for the mental and physical health of their children; it is reassuring to have a mature person provide guidance.”
As camp mom at Camp JCA Shalom, educational writer Deborah Witchey of Tucson, Ariz., does everything from making costumes for the play to sitting with kids in the infirmary to setting up a sunscreen station for them during a field day.
“I love being around kids,” she said. “One experience that made being a camp mom so worthwhile was helping a young girl deal with the death of her grandfather. …We spent hours talking things out, and making her realize her grandfather would want her to stay.”
While there is no camp mom program at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple camps in Malibu, associate director Jen Shankman said her camps have a model where she, in tandem with two licensed therapists, team up to take on various camp mom functions, such as helping kids through homesickness, mediating conflicts between campers, first aid, social anxiety and parental concerns. This year, because there is only one returning therapist, Shankman hired a person to fill a camp mom role.
“Some kids just need a hug and find it reassuring that there is an adult there who is a little older than the counselors, who is looking out for you, and who is available for you and your parents to talk to if something comes up,” she said.
Raber believes the camp experience shaped her future, her career in the “real world” and her Jewish identity, and she hopes the young people she works with will experience the same.
“I look forward to seeing some of the same Jewish camp traditions I experienced growing up,” she said. “Every year, the experience feels brand new.”
Photo: Karen Garelik, pictured above with various groups, is entering her eighth summer as a camp mom at Camp Alonim. Photos courtesy of Karen Garelik