They came to laugh, cry, find friends, commiserate, and to learn. The motives for spending Shabbos with more than 55 families whose children live with a wide range of chronic illness and disabilities was almost as diverse as the 350 people who attended Chai Lifeline’s LH Financial Services Annual Winter Family Retreat on Shabbos Vayichi.
By midday on Friday, the lobby of the Holiday Inn Resort and Conference Center was filled with the sound of laughter as children, all campers at Camp Simcha Special, Chai Lifeline’s overnight camp for children and teens with chronic illnesses and disabilities, met up with beloved counselors and camp friends. Counselors “liberated” campers from their parents, taking them into the dining room for lunch and treats, as parents greeted one another, picked up keys, and directed other volunteers, who rushed with carts to take luggage and supplies to rooms.
“Controlled pandemonium,” described one parent as he simultaneously scooped up a toddler and the information packet offered by a volunteer.
The hotel was whirlwind of activity, then quiet, then children and parents descended to the lobby in their Shabbos finery. Candles were lit, and groups made their way to the conference center, where the auditorium had been transformed into a comfortable shul and conference rooms became stages for children’s activities. As the sun began to sink into the horizon, an extraordinary weekend of community began.
The goal of the annual Winter Retreat, the largest of more than 20 retreat weekends Chai Lifeline runs throughout the US, Canada, Europe, and Israel, is to offer parents information, strategies and inspiration that will help parents become better caregivers, spouses, and individuals. Chai Lifeline’s professional staff works for month to create a program that provides meaningful tools for parenting children with health challenges.
“Yes, we want to give families a wonderful, restful, fun Shabbos. But the real power of the weekend is what you take with you,” explained Rabbi Simcha Scholar. “
Indeed, the impact was felt immediately. Parents had the benefit of both inspiration and information when they listened to Rabbi Yechiel Spero, noted author of the “Touched by a Soul” series before their bountiful Shabbos meal, and Rabbi Dr. Jerry Lob immediately afterwards. Rabbi Spero offered a hashkafic perspective of raising children with health challenges; Dr. Lob’s insights were more practical. As they broke into smaller groups, mothers and fathers agreed that the synthesis was important.
“I get something from everyone while I’m here,” one mother said as she joined her husband at the oneg Shabbos following the small groups. “I learn from the speakers and I learn from the other mothers.”
The emotional high continued throughout Shabbos day. Rabbi Ari Dembitzer, boys head counselor of Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special, gave parents a new perspective on their children during his drasha.
“Our goal in creating Camp Simcha Special was to create an environment where children who were different because of their illnesses could be normal. But we discovered that these children, who may be limited in one area, are often truly special in another,” he told the group. “At camp, they are not special and special at the same time.”
For many of the mothers, the highlight of the weekend was a chance to gather together for seudas shlishis. They listened to their daughters sing, their sweet voices raised together, before breaking into their own zemiros. Mrs. Chanie Juravel, a noted therapist and columnist, spoke directly to their hearts about “living the life you never wanted to lead.”
Noting that “the grass sometimes IS greener on the other side, but this is your grass,” she urged mothers to change their perspective. “We have no control over so many things. But if we can look at what we can control, and work on that, our lives can be different.
In the dining room, Rabbi Simcha Scholar had a similar message for the fathers. Referencing Rabbi Spero’s addresses and the role of true bitachon in meeting the many challenges of parenting children with health challenges, Rabbi Scholar urged the group to have “unlimited bitachon and realistic expectations.”
All too soon for both parents and children, Shabbos was over. Slowly, the emotional high of the day began to recede as parents collected children, brought luggage to their cars, and enjoyed the rousing music and dancing of the melava malka. New friends sat with one another, talking about everything from the weekend’s presentations to doctors and their children’s schools. The conversation underscored the feeling of community that had grown in just 25 short hours.
One mother who had traveled from Europe for the retreat explained, “I never met a person who had my son’s diagnosis. This Shabbos I sat at a table with two parents who child has the same illness as mine. I no longer feel so alone.”
Camp Simcha Special is named in memory of Zvi Dovid Obstfeld.
YWN PHOTO LINK: Click HERE for photos by David Ticktin.
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