Program sends first-timers to camp for life-changing experiences

Louisville campers mug for the camera at Camp GUCI in Zionsville, Indiana. One Happy Camper makes it possible for kids like these to enjoy the camping experience.

There was a time when Elizabeth Davis would describe herself as shy, anxious and afraid of new challenges.
No more. These days she calls herself a confident young woman.
Sure, she is maturing like any average teenager, but Elizabeth, 14, also credits her experience in the One Happy Camper program.
“I would be in a totally different mindset and point of view, and have so much stress and anger if I didn’t have this camp,” she said. “I have best friends here at home, but my camp friends are my best friends also.”
One Happy Camper is a scholarship program that emphasizes the camping experience with Jewish customs and lifestyle. Just about all the campers, counselors and staff are Jewish.
At camp, Shabbat is considered the highlight of the week, according to Elizabeth. “Every Friday night, we all put on nice clothes, and we sing and dance, and have Shabbat dinners.”
These are cherished experiences, she explained. “People who don’t go to camp won’t understand how much all this means to me.”
Hundreds of camps across North America participate in the program. Parents can choose one in their region or one that emphasize specific interests – 150 in all – such as traveling, sports, service or traditional camping.
Most overnight camp sessions are two or four weeks.
Tracy Geller sent her 10-year-old daughter, Rose, to camp this past summer thanks to the program. Since it was Rose’s first experience, they decided to take things slow and opt for a two-week session.
“I heard almost immediately your daughter’s going to want to stay four weeks,” Geller said. “She would have stayed four weeks if we had let her because she did not want to return home. It was a community there, like a second family.”
The experiences Rose had at camp have stayed with her.
“When we say prayers together, it makes me feel happy that we could all be together,” she said. “Where we live, there aren’t that many Jewish people, so I was really excited to go. I was happy I could be around a lot of Jewish people.”
She admitted to being nervous when she left for camp. “I wasn’t sure I’d be comfortable going away for two weeks,” she said, “but when I got there, I loved it.”
One Happy Camper is open to students who are entering first-through-12th grade. The camps can be pricey, so scholarships are available for first time campers. Those who go for four weeks or more can apply for $1,000 grants. For two-week programs, $700-dollar scholarship are available.
“It is a leap of faith,” Geller said. “You don’t know if it’s going to work out, you don’t know if your kid is going to love it. Some people are not willing to make that expensive investment without an incentive, so (the scholarship) helps.”
In the end, she said, the investment was worth it.
“It is an investment in your child’s summer, and their religious experiences. It makes you open your eyes. If they are willing to invest in my child (with the scholarships), then I am willing to spend this money.”
Sponsored by the Jewish Federation. JCL President and CEO Sara Wagner thinks One Happy Camper is a wonderful way for Jews to connect socially and spiritually.
“One Happy Camper receives funds each year from the Federation Annual Campaign,” Wagner said. “I cannot think of a better way to invest in our Jewish children than an immersive Jewish experience with friends and former campers as their role models.”
Elizabeth’s mother, Sally Davis, went through the One Happy Camper program when she was a teenager. She is happy that Elizabeth embraced, too.
“She’s a chip off the old block,” Davis said. “I have wonderful memories. I grew as a person and it made me stronger. Elizabeth comes home from camp so refreshed and rejuvenated, it’s a wonderful experience for her and she has grown so much with both her Judaism and independence…. It’s the best gift I could have given her.” Elizabeth agreed.
“To be honest, it wasn’t what I expected,” she said. “This camp was almost magical. I love camp. When I think about it, it makes me smile.”

Want to apply?
For a list of camps, and locations, visit or contact Mary Jean Timmel at the JCL, 502-238-2722

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