By Adam Griff, NFTY-SAR Senior Regional Director and Camp Coleman Machon Director
Starting a new program isn’t easy. There are many risks, unpredictable challenges, and a great deal of hard work. Last year, we created a new Mitzvah Corps program in Atlanta, in partnership with URJ Camp Coleman and Camp Best Friends, called Mitzvah Corps Atlanta. For many years, NFTY-SAR and STR have run Camp Jenny, a program giving children from an impoverished Atlanta community the opportunity to receive tutoring and support throughout the year, which then culminates in a 4-day long camp experience at Camp Coleman over Memorial Day Weekend. In building this new program, we wanted to take the powerful experience of Camp Jenny, where Jewish teens are empowered to mentor children and build a community with them, and offer that love and compassion to more Atlanta children.
When considering a service project, it’s important to spend a lot of time learning about the community you wish to volunteer with, and really understanding their needs. I met first with the principal of F.L. Stanton Elementary School, to find out what her students do during the summer. I discovered that there was already a highly subsidized day camp serving their community, called Camp Best Friends. Camp Best Friends is run by the City of Atlanta’s recreation department, engaging children in wholesome, organized and productive recreational activities while school is out for the summer.
After learning that Camp Best Friends existed, and that some of our Camp Jenny campers already went there, we were excited to explore the possibility of a partnership. Bobby Harris, Director of Camp Coleman and I met last fall with the director of Camp Best Friends. Together, we explored what their needs were, and whether a group of teenage volunteers could be helpful to them. We were excited to discover together that this would actually be a great match! We decided to offer Mitzvah Corps Atlanta as one of our options for Camp Coleman 12th graders – through our Machon Staff-in-Training Program, a group of Coleman teens would spend 2 weeks living in the dorms at Georgia Tech and volunteering each day at a Camp Best Friends site around the city. Those teens would then continue their experience up at Coleman during 2nd session.
I’ll be honest – our 2018 Mitzvah Corps program wasn’t perfect. It turned out that the Camp Best Friends program wasn’t as well organized as we expected. Even though some days our volunteers were confused about their role, we learned a lot. And we definitely made a difference.
As we prepare for our 2019 program, we’ve already made some important changes. First, our teens will start their orientation next weekend and will visit one of the sites next Friday as part of our annual Machon Orientation Weekend. We’re also going to work more closely with the site directors of the sites we’ll be volunteering at during the first couple weeks of June, so that when our volunteers arrive, we’ll already have built a relationship with each of the camp directors, and not just the overall CBF director. Finally, we’re working on creating opportunities in the fall and winter to continue working with the CBF community, to work towards making it a year-round partnership. We look forward to continuing to grow and strengthen the Mitzvah Corps Atlanta program!