Serious fun at the Jordan River Village

Working in a startup like FlaskData.io is a combination of riding a roller-coaster and doing a 100K bike ride. There are downs (losing deals) and ups (winning deals), and adrenaline rushes(releasing great software) plus you need the stamina to ride strong on the hills and fast after the crest.

I am a serious amateur musician and everyday bike rider so I am not totally lost in the grind of work but every so often you need a change and a different kind of challenge.

Last week, my wife and I volunteered for a week at the Jordan River Village – a camp for children with serious illnesses – part the of the Serious Fun Children’s network founded by Paul Newman (JRV was founded in Israel by Chaim Topol, who was a friend and Hollywood colleague of Newman).  The following is our story.

JRV Camp # 141 – Dec 7-11, 2015

Sunday Dec 6 The night before.

I’m excited and looking forward to my third tour of volunteer duty at JRV – Jordan River Village.   As we did last April, Ofra and I are volunteering together; I will be a camp counsellor with a group of children and Ofra will be working in the JRV operations.  I send out emails and post FB status updates in Hebrew and English in the JRV FB group for volunteers.  It’s the first candle of Chanukah and in the evening, friends come over for beer and “sufganiot” (the Israeli version of donuts without a hole; developed into an art form with all kinds of fancy decorations and fillings).  Ofra has a detailed check list for packing. I pack a toothbrush, clean underwear for 5 days, a bathing suit, jeans, personal electronics and a warm jacket. I’m good to go.

Monday Dec 7 Orientation.

We leave Modiin for the hour and a half drive to JRV.   The day will start at 930 with a full-day orientation for volunteers. Elishama (a fellow volunteer from my August tour) calls us; he needs a pickup at the entrance to Givat Avni, but 15’ later he texts me that he is already there.    We’re a group of 10 volunteers from all over Israel, mostly 18 and before Army service, Hilla who is 21 and just out of the Army and me and Ofra who are senior by age but not by tours at JRV. Elishama is on his 8th tour of volunteering.

We are the last to arrive. Naomi runs the orientation. As usual, Naomi is high energy and focused on getting everyone up to speed and making sure we are ready to have some serious fun and leave our comfort zones at home.

At 11:00, the group leaders and “komuna” join us for a medical presentation on Type I diabetes delivered by Zamora (head nurse at JRV).  The komuna is a group of 18 post-high school students who spend a year volunteering and living at JRV.  Naama (social worker at JRV) talks about behavioral  aspects of the group and Ayelet (JRV training programs) presents guideline for behavior and dos and don’ts. 

After lunch we break out into 3 groups (red, green and blue) and prepare activities we will be running with the children Tuesday through Friday.  I’m in the Red group, led by Noam and Nevo. 

Jenna (in charge of this week’s program) urges us to finish by 23:00. Which we do. More or less.

Tuesday Dec 8 Welcome day

Our second day at JRV – is Welcome Day!

Welcomes at JRV are a special event in their own right with excitement and anticipation (and fear of the unknown for some of the children). The Welcome Center arch is decorated with dozens of balloons and as the children get off the bus – the entire camp staff is front and center – clapping and welcoming the kids to JRV.    The air is electric!

Today after a solid sleep, we get up at 7:00, have breakfast and put the finishing touches on the preparations in a Red group meeting led by Noam.

There are 16 children in the Red group. Naama, the JRV social worker, has prepared a short profile of each child in advance. Noam walks through each  profile with us and we talk about some of the challenges we might run into. By 10:00 we are all at the Welcome Center, ready to greet the children. The children are supposed to arrive at 10:30 and in the meantime, we hang out and learn some cool line dances led by the Ronni and other members of the komuna. (By the end of the week, I more or less have the moves down. I am far from being a dancer but I have a good sense of rhythm and I can keep up).

The children arrive in several separate buses, coming from different places in Israel.   The children get off the bus and walk  through the Welcome Center balloon-festooned arch to the reception desk where each child is given a coloured wrist band and directed to his or her group.

By 11:30 Red group is up and running with 16 kids and Noam runs some break-the-ice activities  with all of us in a big circle starting with “what is your favourite pizza topping?” (the plain no-toppings-needed-crowd are the majority) and we take the kids to Red cabin  (boys in the Red cabin 2 and girls on the right in Red cabin 1).  The kids check into the Medi Club and we break for lunch.   

After lunch the serious fun begins and the day ends for the campers at 22:30 – for the counsellors, the day ends at 00:45 after a group meeting and review of how to handle individual cases and solve issues.   The first day is the hardest and I tell Noam not to worry – tomorrow the magic of JRV will start working.

The komuna has structured the week with the children around a central theme of “The JRV Kingdom” where members of the komuna act out roles of king and chief jester and members of the royal court.  The king has decided to pursue a career as a rock star and  lays down a challenge for the 3 groups (the 3 “families”), which family will inherit the crown and kingdom!

Wed Dec 9 Swimming and chocolate spread.

20:00 Supper and more line-dancing with Just dance videos.   I love it.   A group of Americans come in and I talk to them  They are trying to come to grips with the idea that I’m a camp counselor.

21:45.  After a long day, I’m back in Red cabin 2 with the boys who are coming off a bunch of activities including the swimming pool with the entire camp. The campers are tired but in good spirits – everyone is checking their blood sugar.  The nurse and the doctor whirl in for a few minutes to record the readings and fine-tune some of the children. The nurse asks one of the boys if he wants to have something to eat. (He goes off to make a chocolate spread sandwich, yummy).

21:50 Noam comes in with Yarin (one of the guys from the komuna who is in our group).  Noam is officially announcing lights out to the boys who are fairly unimpressed but she is getting more assertive by the minute.  I ask the 3 boys who are hanging out in the living room – “Are you guys still here?” and they get the message and they get into bed.  Another round of nurses visiting, and everyone is in bed with their phones, playing games, listening to music and sending Whats app messages.   I chat with one of the nurses – a blood disorder specialist from Rambam hospital – he brought his road bike and we talk about his ride this morning.

Thursday Dec 10 The climbing wall, the ponies, the bunnies and the JRV Gala

07:00 Today is the big day – the campers are doing the extreme sports park – which has a 4 story climbing wall, a 200m long Omega and rope ladders of all sorts.   The 3 groups rotate between the park, pony riding, archery and a petting area with bunnies and goats.  The counsellors are part of the fun but the kids are in the front.  Nothing beats 15’ holding a warm bunny (who is getting ready to jump at any second) for peace and quiet but the kids are hyped by the climbing wall and rightly so.

13:00 Lunch. Always a big event at JRV and a bit more complex for Type 1 diabetic children. One of the boys is piling up his plate but slouching in his seat.   I automatically tell him to sit straight.   He says “You sound like my grandma” but he sits up.  Well – I’m probably his grandmas’s age….Chaim Topol breezes in and says hello.   He asks me if I’m a doctor.   No, I’m still a counselor.

20:00 This evening is the last night at JRV – marked by a gala competition between the three groups for the honour of inheriting the Kingdom of JRV from the komuna.   Each group prepares a little act and a song and dance and truth be told – I’m amazed how creative and good they are with so little preparation. Predictably – all 3 groups win but in their own special way!  After the skits – there is lots of dancing and fun and lights out at 22:30 with a lot of tired but happy campers.

JRV Kumuna 2015

Friday Dec 11 It’s time to say goodbye.

Back at Red cabin – we pack up and after breakfast meet for the last activity of the camp.  Each counsellor gives a child the tie-die t-shirt that they made with a few personal words.  I give the tie-died t-shirt to a 13 year old girl with braces who was quiet most of the week and on the fringe of the 2 cliques of the popular girls (yes – the girls formed 2 cliques within an hour of arriving…).  I tell her that for me, she is the perfect example of the magic of JRV: dealing with a personal challenge, taking everything the camp dishes out and enjoying every moment.

We say farewell at the Welcome Center and leave JRV with a great feeling.

Danny and Ofra Lieberman live in Modiin, Israel.  Danny is the founder of FlaskData.io and Ofra looks after rare books and manuscripts at the Israel National Library.   Ofra and Danny celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary at JRV in April 2015 with a week of serious fun volunteer work. They have 4 children and 9 grand-children. They hope to come back as soon as possible for their next tour.

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