They were on the phone.
Two old friends who’d grown up together in the Milwaukee area’s North Shore were just talking on the phone.
It was maybe 15 years ago. Who knows anymore? During a visit to the Albert & Ann Deshur JCC Rainbow Day Camp in Fredonia in August, they were too busy having fun and working hard to think much about it, teasing each other as only old friends can.
But way back when, on the phone, they talked about the morale of kids at Children’s Hospital. An idea formed to bring some kids from the hospital to Rainbow Day Camp, for free.
Lenny Kass, executive director of the camp, a program of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, remembers saying something like, “Dave, why don’t we put a few kids on the bus and bring them over here.”
Dr. David Margolis objected: “We can’t do that.”
“Why not?” Kass said.
Then, they did it.
That first year, each “opened up their wallets” to make it happen. From that first 25 children about 15 years ago, the Rainbow Day Camp/Children’s Hospital partnership has grown to a four-day program serving about 200 campers annually.
Most of the kids endure difficult medical diagnoses, but there are also friends and siblings. Campers can invite a sibling or friend to join them at camp, because sometimes it’s scary to go to camp on your own. And siblings can face their own challenges and are in need of support.
“Our feeling is cancer strikes more than just the child,” Kass said. It hits the family.
The Rainbow Day Camp/Children’s Hospital partnership brings kids to the camp when more typical day camp programming is over for the year. These kids, many of them with severe illnesses, are largely not Jewish, but Kass and Margolis see Jewish values in the endeavor.
“It’s repairing the world,” said Margolis, referring to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam. He also talked about the Jewish notion regarding “visiting the sick, healing the sick.”
Michelle Deppiesse of Cedar Grove brings sons Jon, 13, and Mason, 10, to the camp. “Every time I ask them if they want to come, they’re pretty quick to say they want to come,” she said.
Mason’s brain tumor was removed in 2015, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. “It’s just hard,” Mason said.
Mason’s favorite game at camp is dodgeball “because it feels good to get people out.” Jon likes the laser tag: “It’s just a bunch of people running around, running from lasers.”
After their first year, Kass and Margolis turned to family for donations. Today, the program has financial support from Northwestern Mutual and Charter Manufacturing Co. Northwestern Mutual sends volunteers to help annually.
“It’s what great organizations in our community do,” Margolis said. “It starts out as friends who work together.”
Kass tells a story about a boy who couldn’t go swimming because he had a medical port that needed to stay dry. “So I’m digging around the kitchen for cellophane,” he recalled.
Children’s Hospital sends social workers, doctors and others to help with the program. Thus, it was nurses who wrapped the boy up in the found cellophane and he got to swim. The next day he excitedly arrived with more cellophane but it was raining. There was no thunder, so Kass said he could swim and the boy brightened.
“I could tell you about twelve stories like that,” Kass said. “That’s the power of this program.”