July 10, 2019
originally published on JewishAZ.com
For nearly 40 years, Camp Swift has continued to provide economically disadvantaged youth with the opportunity to experience overnight summer camp. For many of the mostly Jewish teen and young adult volunteers, the camp is an opportunity to build leadership skills and create meaningful relationships.
“At the end of the camp, when we’re sending the kids to go home, I’ve seen the most macho, stone-cold, big guys break down,” Swift volunteer Kara Sherman said. “Because the relationships that are established between all levels of staff with these campers are so emotional that it’s not just a surface-level camp.”
The Swift Youth Foundation holds its Camp Swift program in two weeklong sessions every summer at Camp Daisy and Harry Stein. This year’s first session ended in May and the second session will begin on July 31 and end on Aug. 4. Campers range from ages 8 to 11 and are predominantly from the Hispanic, African American and Native American communities of the Phoenix metropolitan area.
Sherman — who just completed her first year of college — has volunteered for four years at the weeklong camp and has attended six sessions.
Sunnyslope High School senior Alexis Hatch is now in her third year as a volunteer for Swift. She found being a volunteer and team member very challenging, but she also saw firsthand how her hard work paid off.
“I think one of the best parts about Swift is leaving knowing that you’ve made an impact, a positive impact that can actually better the lives of another person,” Hatch said. “Those personal feelings of accomplishment and the concrete impact we’re making on these kids, as well as the strong friendships I’ve made while at camp, have kept me coming back these past three years.”
Hatch and Sherman both felt that their experience at the camp helped develop skills in leadership and teamwork in a practical setting. Hatch said that after her first summer as a counselor, she left the program feeling more responsible, patient and capable of solving problems.
One of those problems is getting campers to overcome their fears about camp. “Often, they don’t have prior experience with camp activities like rock wall or even the swimming pool,”Hatch explained. “As with all kids, trying something unfamiliar is scary. As counselors, we get a lot of training on how to convince these kids to take the plunge, but it’s definitely a challenge.”
Once they do, she said, it’s powerful to see. Both she and Sherman plan to come back to the camp. Some past counselors, like Kaylie Medansky, have turned their passion for Swift into a full-time career.
Medansky serves as the executive director for the Swift Youth Foundation. She began volunteering as a counselor when she was 15 and continued her work with Swift through the organization’s year-round programs. Each of the programs offer mentorship opportunities and build the same type of relationship opportunities that the overnight camp does.
“The peer mentorship element of all of our programs is what makes Swift stand out from other camps and out-of-school program providers,” Medansky explained. “Swift is one of the most hands-on volunteer opportunities available for teens and therefore provides a life-changing experience for everyone involved — both the teens and the youth participants.”
Camp Swift was founded in 1980, when Jewish teen members of the Southwest chapter of NFTY wanted to give less fortunate children in the Phoenix area a free summer camp experience. Camp Swift became an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 1995 and its first after-school programs were created in 2002. In 2015 the camp was rebranded as the Swift Youth Foundation. Club Swift is one of the programs for students year-round and is a high school leadership development program that started in 2010 for former Camp Swift campers.
Swift is funded primarily by individual donations, although it has received grants through the Nina Pulliam Summer Youth Program Fund and the B’nai Tzedek Youth Philanthropy Fund. Swift is also partnered with several community organizations such as the NFTY Southwest chapter, the Boys & Girls Club of Metropolitan Phoenix and several Title 1 school districts to recruit participants. “Several districts believe so highly in the benefits and learning experiences provided by Swift that the program has been incorporated into their curriculum,” Medansky said.
While Swift has grown significantly since 1980, Medansky said that its core mission to provide at-risk youth with a free summer camp has never changed. Through team-building activities as well as both peer mentoringand goal-setting programs, campers areprovided with “the tools they need to achieve success.” JN
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Swift Youth Foundation