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Advancing Mental Health at Summer J Camp

What do spending an afternoon with dogs and playing with giant soccer balls have in common? For Summer J Camp’s newest staff member Lisa Williams, they’re both opportunities for mental health awareness.

In December, J Camp was one of more than 32 day camps selected by Foundation for Jewish Camp to participate in a ground-breaking initiative to enhance the mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health (MESSH) of our camp community. As part of this cohort, J Camp will receive up to $36,500 over the next four years to hire mental health professionals, enhance counselor training, develop wellness activities, and more.

Lisa is passionate about children’s mental health and is thrilled to help J Camp launch this new program. She’s been working with kids her entire career as a social worker, school counselor, nanny, and currently as a teacher in the J’s Early Childhood School. 

As the MESSH Coordinator, Lisa will create mental health and wellness activities for campers and staff this summer, and she believes that a holistic approach is essential to the program’s success. “It’s about integrating these conversations into the everyday culture of camp,” she said.

Lisa notes that so many skills we use every day as adults, such as empathy, patience, conflict resolution, and positive self-talk are all learned behavior. “The younger we teach these skills to kids, the better we set them up for a lifetime of success around mental health awareness. And it can all start at a random day at summer camp.”

For example, if a child is having a tough week, Lisa may offer them a break from the group activity—maybe they’ll do an art project or play a favorite board game together. These one-on-one interactions offer opportunities to explore and coach in ways that don’t feel like work or punishment, she said. “I truly think fun can be part of it. It disarms kids and they’re more likely to open up.”

Simply being present and part of the daily camp community is also important. Perhaps she’ll join a soccer game regularly so the kids get used to having her around. While they’re playing together, she can offer suggestions for alternative ways to handle conflict, encourage kids to “flex their patience muscles” while they wait their turn, or empower them to check on a friend who gets hurt.

“Anything you do is an opportunity for learning and growth,” she said. “Camp is a great space for kids to learn social cues and test their expanding life skills in a safe and fun way.”

Lisa will also work with the teen and young adult counselors. She’ll offer guidance and training that will impact them as well as the campers—from tools to help kids navigate conflict resolution to self-soothing techniques for their own anxiety. “I hope they learn to be mental health advocates for the kids and for themselves.”

Camp Director Aliza Glatter shares Lisa’s belief that camp is an ideal environment to help kids and teens focus on these essential life skills. “Camp should be a place where everyone feels safe, supported, and able to be their authentic selves,” Aliza said. “With Lisa’s help, I know our campers and staff will learn so much about themselves and how to be part of a community.”

At the end of the summer, Lisa hopes kids walk away with a better understanding of their mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health. “I hope they’ll have learned how to do something they didn’t think was possible or realize that everyone feels the same way they do sometimes, I hope new relationships come out of this, and that kids feel confident in themselves and their abilities,” she said. “But most of all, I hope they have a lot of fun.”

Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Yedid Nefesh initiative is generously funded by The Marcus Foundation.