Jewish summer camps in Georgia have experienced a painful offseason.
The 17 people slain at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14 included Camp Coleman alumna Alyssa Alhadeff and four other Jewish students, and many students at the heavily Jewish public school had ties to Coleman, Camp Ramah Darom or Camp Barney Medintz in the North Georgia mountains.
The Ramah Darom family already was reeling from a plane crash in Costa Rica that killed campers Hannah and Ari Weiss in late December.
Atlanta families have felt connected to the disasters through the camps, whose directors — Camp Coleman’s Bobby Harris, Camp Ramah Darom’s Geoff Menkowitz and Camp Barney Medintz’s Jim Mittenthal — spoke about the lingering impact as they plan for the summer.
“The effects of the massacre at Stoneman Douglas have rippled through the Camp Ramah Darom family,” Menkowitz said. Counselors have reached out to families whose children attend the school and will monitor them at camp over the summer.
“Each kid will move through grief (and) understanding and process the tragedy in different ways, but it’s our responsibility to effectively communicate with families and make sure we are prepared for the kids when they return under our care,” he said.
Ramah Darom has established the Weiss Family Scholarship Fund to honor Floridians Leslie, 50, and Mitchell Weiss, 52, and their children, Hannah, 19, and Ari, 16, who were among nine people killed in the December plane crash. Donations can be made at ramahdarom.org/Weiss-family-scholarship-fund.
“It’s been difficult to watch all the members of the community walk through this hard time but inspiring to see all the people connected to our camp community supporting each other and taking action to advocate for change,” Menkowitz said.
Harris said some campers have kept in touch with counselors, some of whom traveled to Florida for funerals and other services alongside youths who attended Camp Coleman or were at Stoneman Douglas during the massacre.
“The counselors and the unit heads felt the desire to show up and be there for the kids because we all know that counselors can be role models in life and can be people we can go to because they continue to have a bond or relationship with the campers,” Harris said.
Harris said some kids asked him whether they could organize a drive to dedicate a swing in memory of Alhadeff. He said the swing is a place where campers create connections, conversations and memories, so it symbolizes what camp is about.
One youth asked community members to help create a book with photographs and memories of Alhadeff, to be sent to her parents, Harris said. “The idea is for her parents to understand the impact she had on others while at camp and learn about a part of her life and who she was while they were not there.”
Counselors and campers have had a lot of interaction since the Parkland shooting, Harris said.
“We know that coming back to camp will be some place campers can reconnect and help take care of each other and are taking the steps to prepare a safe experience for them,” he said.
Harris said Coleman has social workers on site and is working with Jewish Family & Career Services to deal with any situation.
JF&CS is offering individualized meetings for each camp, as well as sessions for the camp administrators and staff on how to process and manage feelings, said Dan Arnold, the director of clinical services for JF&CS.
He said JF&CS is providing literature for adults to help them recognize when a child is grieving or otherwise needs additional support.
“We know that kids aren’t always able to verbalize feelings or are comfortable asking for support, but this is a great way for adults to be on the lookout,” Arnold said.
JF&CS will invite the camps this summer to contact the agency if they need additional assistance from JF&CS’ counselors.
“We are committed to supporting our community partners and managing the strong feelings related to the Parkland shooting, but also the staff members and the counselors, because we know those relationships were present, and they may also be affected,” Arnold said.
Camp Barney, which has access to emergency response units, sheriff’s deputies, emergency medical services and homeland security, will offer special programs for campers to express themselves should they feel any post-trauma effects, Mittenthal said.
“The intentionality is something that is paramount for us,” he said. “Whether it was bomb threats to the JCC about a year ago or similar events, they remind us to go through our very, very long checklist.”
Mittenthal said he prolifically writes about everything that is seen and not seen, meaning everyone working behind the scenes, to keep Camp Barney safe each summer.
Many people connected to Camp Barney have felt the impact of the Parkland shooting, Mittenthal said, whether they live in Atlanta or South Florida. He said what makes him emotional sometimes is the number of affected families who have told him how grateful they are that not only their neighbors, but also people from Barney have reached out to them.
Rather than feel any nervousness about leaving families for a month or two this summer, campers are looking forward to renewing their camp community, he said.
“These kids were in the same units, went to each other’s bar and bat mitzvahs, and realize they are going to live in this atmosphere for the next several months,” Mittenthal said, “but are counting down the days to experience what they feel at camp every summer.”