Opportunity from Adversity: A Neighborhood Camp

By The Quaren-Team

We started discussing the possibility of quaran-teaming together in early April. All of us were working from home, our kids going to virtual Jewish day school for at least a few hours every day, with varying degrees of success around actual learning. Throughout March and April, all of us dealt with the disorientation and shock of trying to simultaneously manage full time jobs and full time day care. We tried to quickly adapt to the new normal, while explaining to our kids we were taking lots of precautions to stay safe. In the early days of the pandemic we were all experimenting around the boundaries of cultural comfort. Are you going out to the grocery? Ordering in from Instacart? What are communal norms?

The moms, and sometimes groups of couples, would take walks outside looping around our neighborhood discussing dashed summer plans, vacations, and camp. Long before summer camps announced their closings, we anticipated the call, worrying about our kids’ mental health and our own professional productivity. Neither were doing well. Actually, no one was doing well. 

The old cliché is that it takes a village to raise a child. Or 11 of them. By mid-May, we started returning to this idea seriously. We all lived within a 1-mile radius, in the suburbs of a mid-Atlantic city. We talked about who was in and out, made subtle offers, casual conversations, overt ovatures. What started as a joke from some and a plea from others, congealed into a reality. We kept asking, “are we really doing this?” So far, we are.  

On June 22nd, we launched a small, neighborhood summer camp. We are five families, 11 children between 6 and 14, and 9 full-time working parents. At least one parent in each family works in the Jewish community. Forgive us for keeping our details anonymous, but many of us work with organizations that are now offering summer camp options.    

When we gathered to plan, COVID-19 was the obvious elephant in the room. We agreed to hosting no one but each other inside houses, and socially distancing with others outside. We agreed that if we had socialized with anyone outside who was diagnosed, that family would quarantine for 14 days. We made disclosures – we have a clearing lady, they had a plumber in the house, we are thinking of going up north to visit parents, down south to see other family, etc.  

Many of us worked at summer camps over the years, most of us have excellent executive functioning skills. Though our parenting styles differ, we mostly align on our values. We looked at calendars and shared google docs and spreadsheets. We built a schedule with staffing and activities. We chose modest hours: Monday-Friday 10-3. Two adults per day would serve as the “counselors,” sometimes with couples subbing in for an hour or two. We thought about size, and wanted to fit into two cars so we can take day trips. We brainstormed names for the camp, and ultimately left it up to the kids to decide. We’ve made t-shirts with that name, and the tag-line: Best Worst Summer Ever. So far, it has been. 

Halfway through week one, we had an emergency zoom call. One family had been having drinks with a couple, outside and socially distanced. A few days later, that family learned that one of their guests had been tested for COVID-19 before a routine procedure, and it came back positive. That night, we decided together that the family should immediately get tested, and quarantine for 14 days. We revised the camp schedule without them, adjusting hours and planning new activities. They were sorely missed, but the camp continued, and after 2 weeks they rejoined. And that guest has thankfully been fully asymptomatic.  

We are just about to finish week 3. The activities are simple and creative: building towers out of raw spaghetti and marshmallows, corn hole, candle dipping, ping pong, board games, and cards. The kids bring lunch, and for 30-45 minutes after eating, they do summer reading and homework. So far the kids have been on two field trips. We have a lot going for us – yards, dogs, a swimming pool, a hot tub, a built out basement, even a zip line and campfire. And we have dedicated parents who are all intent on helping each other work through challenges. We text a lot. We discuss behavior. We are strict on a no technology policy. That hasn’t gone over well with the teens. 

We know what we are doing is unique and different. Many friends want in, others are judgemental of our choices, thinking we are putting ourselves and our kids at risk. We are just trying to make life livable in a surreal and difficult time. And frankly, we are finding far more moments of joy than we had initially envisioned. Contrary to all our expectations, the kids have rarely grouped off by age or experience, but instead, they’ve bridged those to become a community of peers. Yes, they fight, but they negotiate too. Yes, siblings pick on each other, but they stick up for each other as well. Without prompting, they help each other, to climb over rocks, solve a math problem, or get over a tantrum. They’ve even helped the youngest child learn to swim. Perhaps the most telling moment was after week two, when one child got ready for camp on a Sunday morning, and was quite angry when told there wasn’t any that day. Or maybe it is just hearing squeals of joy as they splash around in the pool, as children should do, rather than worry about pandemics or cry out of loneliness.

Could this be replicable? Yes! It is about making this time manageable. You don’t have to all be childhood friends. Indeed, many of us just met in the last few years. Fortunately, our skills in Jewish community building helped us figure out how to make this work. After reflecting a bit we realized an essential ingredient is that the dads in our group are hands on and most have significant flexibility. Many of these dads take on the majority of the division of labor at home, or at least half. They are used to schlepping the kids; they did a lot of it pre-COVID.

As we all obsess about whether and when school will start, and what it will look like, we are beginning to think about what this model could look like in the longer term. If this is working, how can we adapt it if school is online? The reality of this pandemic changes day to day. The news is confusing and contradictory. We are leaning on community and finding incredible value in being together, in trusting each other, in strengthening bonds through everyday engagement. It is still tentative and new. And this is different.  

Yet this is a model that could be applied elsewhere. As we think about the effect of COVID-19 on the community-building institutions we rely on, we must realize that there will be a new normal. JCCs, camps, schools, and synagogues may not be able to offer opportunities in the way they once did.

We may not have the luxury, or the desire, to drop off kids and have them move freely in and out spaces as they did before. While these new circumstances can be perceived as obstacles and challenges, they force us to think about community building and imparting values to our children in new ways. It will take time, however, for our organized Jewish community to figure out what that means. In the meantime, individuals can take action and help shape what that looks like.

A unique benefit of the camp that we created is that it engages the whole family. It gives parents a chance to connect socially and meaningfully with other adults, something we crave as well. It forces us to think creatively and use parts of the brain we don’t get to exercise in other parts of our life, and brings along built-in social time around planning. And lest we forget, seven parents have five uninterrupted hours of work time per day, without the background worry and frustration that it was at the cost of children glued endlessly to their screens. 

For many, the last few months have been way too exhausting. Here is one silver lining, an opportunity, that was revealed during these “fill in the blank” times. For some, those who enjoyed increased family time and deepening relationships, this is an opportunity to continue that silver lining. The world is changing so quickly and this model is a way for now, to change with it, and to bring your kids as much joy and normalcy as possible … with a little something for the moms and dads too.