Swimming, sports, and trips are common parts of any camp experience. Making the world a better place usually is not.
However, at the TLC — Teen Leadership through Chesed — program of Camp Keshet at Young Israel of East Brunswick, youngsters entering grades six through nine combine camp fun with good deeds.
About 25 youngsters are in the program, now in its third year, said its director, Rachel Adams.
She stood watching campers decorate vases and make paper flowers that the Jewish Family and Vocational Service of Middlesex County would deliver to seniors in the community.
The program revolves around a weekly theme such as bikur holim — the mitzva of visiting the sick — or supporting the military.
“This is really a unique program,” said Adams. “The kids who are here really want to be here. They’re very mature and really get a lot out of this program. They want to take part in something bigger than themselves.”
Hesed projects are done four days a week. Half of each day is spent on sports and games; Wednesday is for day trips.
“Anybody can do hesed at any time,” said Max Schechter, 12, of East Brunswick, who will enter eighth grade at Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison this September. “If I find a wallet while we are at Great Adventure, I have to find out who it belongs to and return it,” said Max, who with his twin sister, Eden, is in his third year at TLC.
The projects and causes are varied. Campers sold lemonade in Highland Park to raise money for Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for research and awareness of childhood cancer. Adams said the campers raised $400.
At PetSmart in Manalapan, they spoke to staff and the animal rescue group operating the cat adoption center in the store. Youngsters helped with the cats and made kitty treats and bandannas to send home with each adoptee.
In Brooklyn they volunteered at Masbia, a kosher soup kitchen, preparing bags of donated items for the needy. At the Food Bank of New Jersey in Hillside, they learned about hunger in the state.
Campers were inspired by a visit to the Monroe offices of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which helps grant the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses.
“We all loved Make-A-Wish,” said Eden Schechter. She added that the excursions helped the participants understand the importance of supporting such endeavors.
Max said he found it meaningful to volunteer at Ronald McDonald House in New Brunswick, which houses families of children hospitalized for serious illnesses.
During “military awareness” week, youngsters wrote letters of support to IDF members, and made Rosh Hashana packages for Jewish soldiers serving overseas in the American military.
Adams said some of the young people have connected so strongly with the causes, they continued to volunteer after the project ended.
“That’s nice because it tells me they really got something out of it,” said Adams, a senior elementary education major at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women.
Chaya Hirsch, 10, of Edison, who is going into fifth grade at Yeshiva of the Jersey Shore, said, “It’s good to help people because your life is good, and maybe you can help other people to have a good life too.”