by Julie Feldman, LCSW, Firefly Day Camp Director and Liz Robbin, Speech-Language Pathologist, Firefly Overnight Camp Director
We remember our first day of camp as if it was yesterday. Bashful glances and giggles from the children; watchful eyes and tearful goodbyes from parents. The sounds of luggage moving into cabins and young campers climbing into bunk beds; counselors chatting and smiling ear to ear.
Our first day at Camp Firefly changed our lives forever. As Camp Chi campers and staff alumni, we were thrilled to be back at camp in a different capacity. We returned to camp with skills from our professional backgrounds as well as everything we learned from our years of experience on staff at Chi. And while our studies and work experiences provided a solid foundation for what to expect, we were amazed from the start at the careful planning and preparation the staff undertook – no detail left unnoticed, no hour left unplanned. We saw firsthand how Camp Firefly provides a safe and nurturing camp experience for kids and teenagers with social disorders who often find the camp environment to be overwhelming. As anyone who has been to camp knows, it is a magical place where friendships are formed, new skills are developed and confidence is built.
From nightly campfires to field trips to water parks; from the climbing wall and zip line to afternoons in the sun at the lake, our campers were able to explore the often confusing social environment of a summer camp with the support of knowledgeable and empathic counselors guiding the way. The Camp Firefly staff worked to make the days predictable, set attainable goals and nurture a group dynamic that was comfortable and safe.
We witnessed an unbelievable growth and maturity in the campers after just one week. The experience they had alongside their cabin mates and counselors was irreplaceable. Camp Firefly, a program of JCFS Chicago and JCC Camp Chi, has become a special place for children and teens with Asperger’s, social anxiety, autism and other social disorders. For more than 10 years, Camp Firefly has served over 300 families from across the Midwest, and as far away as California. It has become a second home to both campers and staff alike. “Camp Firefly is so awesome and life changing, I hope I can go every year,” said one camper.
Camp Firefly remains close to our hearts and an important part of our day-to-day lives. We use the skills that we learned at camp to support children with social, communication and developmental needs each and every day in our roles as a school social worker and speech-language pathologist.
We have been fortunate to be part of the team that has launched the new Firefly programs over the past several years. Three years ago, Liz Robbin helped develop the two week Teen Camp program at the overnight camp, which was created as an extension program for campers who aged out of Camp Firefly, but would continue to benefit from attending camp. In addition to typical camp activities, teen campers have the opportunity to work on service project and mentor younger campers. Most recently, Liz was part of the team that created the Next Step program, a three week experience for campers who have graduated from Teen Camp. In addition to typical camp activities, Next Step participants have daily vocational placements, organize activities for younger campers and go on special outings geared toward independent living. In 2013, Julie Feldman helped launch the Firefly Day Camp program at Camp Apachi in Lake Zurich, a program modeled after the overnight program.
We consider ourselves forever changed by the supportive staff we have worked with these past four summers, as well as being impacted by all of the campers with whom we have had the pleasure to work. It is difficult to put into words the impact this experience has had on all of us…for as we say up at Camp Chi, “From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. And from the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.” Our campers’ lives will forever be changed by the people they have met and the adventures they have accomplished.
Julie Feldman began her Firefly Journey in 2010 as a counselor at the Firefly overnight camp following several years of attending Camp Chi as both a camper and a counselor. In 2013, she was a part of the team that started at the new Firefly Day Camp. Julie is a licensed clinical social worker with a passion for advocating for children and their families.
Liz Robbin has been part of the Firefly family since 2011 and is excited to be the overnight camp director this summer. She spent many years as a camper, counselor, and adventure trip leader at Camp Chi prior to working at Camp Firefly. During the school year, Liz is a speech-language pathologist for an early childhood special education program.
JCFS Chicago and JCC Camp Chi are community partners supported by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation.