We thought it might be helpful to say a few words this year to all of the American Camp Association membership to commemorate the tenth year since we all, tragically, prematurely, and suddenly, lost the life of a ten-year-old camper, our son Jeremy. So much in our world has happened and changed in the last ten years, but one thing remains certain and constant — our responsibility to keep all campers safe and to think safety first. We hope that, consistent with this responsibility, ACA-Accredited® camps, and indeed all camps, continue to use the lessons learned from Jeremy's death, and the original video (now updated DVD), Who Will Care When I'm Not There?, in training and teaching counselors — and in establishing, reevaluating, and testing safety protocols. We believe that this vital teaching tool continues to help staff create the safest environment possible for all campers.
We are still believers in the camp experience and remain convinced that camps provide children with endless and wonderful growing and learning opportunities that cannot be found elsewhere. Our five children — who are ages five to eighteen — attend camp or are counselors at camp. They love it and they have flourished, but camp can only realize its full potential if everyone who supervises — from camp owners and operators to the most junior counselor — thinks safety first.
Here are some of what we have shared with counselors over the last decade when speaking during staff orientation sessions, which you may want to share with your staff as well:
- Still, after all these years, we cannot watch or listen to the video without getting all choked up. Our eyes fill with water, and our throats close. We knew Jeremy too well, and loved him too much, so deeply. The pain, although slowly dissipating, remains. The wound still, at times, is raw.
- This past summer Jeremy would have turned twenty (20) years old. We have found it effective to have those born in 1987 stand. Such a moment drives home the point that those who are standing are lucky to be there, that they too could have easily died had their counselors been careless . . . and that they now have a serious responsibility that can affect the lives of their campers.
- There are many things the video does not tell you. For instance, I still vividly remember receiving that phone call at my desk: “Jeremy's missing and there was water,” said the voice on the other side of the line. “What?!” And, then again: “Jeremy's missing and there was water.” That was such a terrible moment, and those words haunt me to this day. Although most of what happened over the next twenty-four hours is a blur, I do recall running alongside traffic on Manhattan's Westside highway to get to a helicopter as quickly as possible, taking the helicopter up to the camp with one of my brothers, and searching with family members through the night in the woods and in the water, until he was found by divers the next morning. An awful, awful sight, etched forever in my mind.
- Other things the tape doesn't mention: that several other campers almost lost their lives in the water that day, that safety protocols had been overlooked, and that additional rules (at least in New York) have since been enacted. But rules can only go so far. The responsibility falls squarely on your shoulders, as counselors in the field, to use good judgment, to think safety first — will my campers be safe? It's fine for counselors to participate in camp games, but it is not their job to win or lose — it's their job to think safety first.
- Think of analogous situations. An eleven-year-old may follow his older eighteen-year-old brother (or counselor) down an expert skiing trail, or a half-pipe, or bike route, although clearly not capable. A ten-year-old may follow his counselors mud sliding in the rain, despite the lightning. Or, he or she may follow counselors who jump in a fast-moving river after rafting or canoeing. Young campers — eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve-year-olds — look upon their counselors as heroes, and those who are good listeners will follow — even into the most dangerous places of all — into the water.
- The overriding purpose of the video when it was produced — and now the updated DVD — is staff empowerment. We say this because it is important for counselors who view this training tool not to be scared or frightened, or to feel sad or sympathetic. That's not our message. Rather, we want counselors to feel empowered — that our message is about knowledge and power — and we are empowering counselors with the most important knowledge they'll need to succeed. We are empowering them to take our experience, and learn from it — to have a sharp awareness of consequences and always remember to think safety first. If they do, they and their campers are in for the best summer of their lives!
We have received many supportive letters, e-mails, and notes over the years, but one from early on stands out:
“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Scheinfeld: I am a camp counselor at [a sleepaway camp] in Illinois. During the ten days of training we watched the video on your son's death. The movie moved me deeply, and I'm truly sorry for your loss. This summer I will remember your words and Jeremy's death to make the best decisions for the children to keep them safe. Camp does bring a world of good, and I'm a counselor out to prove it.”
We hope you and your counselors are, too.
Lastly, thank you. Thank you for giving us the chance to share and spread our message of safety. No one knows for sure if we have saved any lives over the last decade, but we have tried our best — and we will continue to do so, with your help, for decades to come. May each and every one of you have a terrific and safe summer of 2008.
Jodi and Rob Scheinfeld live in New Rochelle, New York, with their five children. In 1998, they established the Jeremy Scheinfeld Foundation for Kids to benefit children of all ages. Since 2001, Rob has been serving on the nine-member New York State Camp Safety Advisory Council, whose mission is to advise New York's Department of Health regarding rules, regulations, and policy matters relating to youth camp safety.
Originally published in the 2008 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.