While many children look forward to a summer filled with swimming, trips, camp and relaxation, for hundreds of hospitalized children, summer can be a particularly challenging time.
Thirty-five years ago, Rabbi Mendel Lieberman, Organizer of Hospital Activities for Colel Chabad, Israel’s oldest charity organization, had an epiphany. Hospitalized children were receiving a very raw deal, especially in the summer.
While their peers were at camp or on vacation with their parents, hospitalized children were not only suffering from their ailment but they were also bored out of their minds with nothing to do except wait for the next series of tests, the next surgery, the next injection or the next transfusion.
“The summer months are among the busiest in pediatric wards,” explained Rabbi Lieberman to Breaking Israel News. “Many non-urgent procedures and surgeries take place in the summer so that children won’t miss school. In addition, there are many emergencies like accidents and dehydration which bring children to the hospital as well as children who suffer from serious illnesses that require long hospital stays or constant outpatient visits for treatments such as chemotherapy or dialysis.”
To bring joy and entertainment to sick children and relief to their parents and hospital staff, Rabbi Lieberman and a team of six professionals created a hospital summer camp experience. His goal was to alleviate boredom and to help sick children overcome their fears by giving them the love and attention that the doctors and nurses are often too busy to provide.
“Most of the Colel Chabad hospital activities revolve around arts and crafts,” explained Rabbi Lieberman to Breaking Israel News. “It goes without saying that the hospital environment and the weaknesses that many of these children have, sports or other activities normally associated with summer vacation cannot happen.”
Presently, the Colel Chabad hospital summer camp program includes 45 pediatric beds in Israel’s coastal Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon and 80 pediatric beds in Israel’s central Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot. The hospital camps are fully funded by Colel Chabad and operate six days a week throughout July and August, from 9:00 am through 1:00 pm and from 4:00 pm through 7:00 pm. There is no charge either to the hospital or to the children and their parents.
Colel Chabad provides everything from “camp” t-shirts to drama classes, sing-alongs and more. “A lot of our ‘campers’ are from poor homes,” said Rabbi Lieberman. “Their parents have to work and cannot spend their days besides their child’s hospital bed. Knowing that Colel Chabad is providing loving care and entertainment to their sick child through Chabad high school and post high school student volunteers is an enormous relief for overburdened mothers and fathers.”
The hospital staff is no less grateful. When the program was first presented, hospital administrators were skeptical. However, it did not take long before they were singing the praises of Colel Chabad’s hospital summer camp initiative.
“Overburdened nurses and doctors appreciate that the children are being looked after by our counselors who are happy to step in and calm a child down before a difficult procedure or ensure that the sick children are comfortable,” told Rabbi Lieberman to Breaking Israel News.
Colel Chabad summer camps were the first of their kind in Israel. Today, many hospitals have developed similar programs, all modeled on the pioneering work of Rabbi Lieberman and his dedicated team.
“Before any hospital launches such a program, they turn to Colel Chabad to learn how we do things and to find out what works best under these difficult circumstances,” shared Rabbi Lieberman. “We are always happy to help as we know that hospital summer camps enhance recuperation as children are encouraged to get out of bed and be active and through the good feelings that they get. Colel Chabad hospital summer camps are not ‘our job’. They are our mission.”