By Ben Tinsley
Special to TJP
Melissa Rodriguez, a senior Communications Studies major at the University of Texas at Arlington, said Camp Impact has changed her life for the better.
What started out as a week of summer escape for this 23-year-Grand Prairie girl quickly evolved into a life mission for her. At age 4, she was one of the youngest campers at the camp. Now, many years later, she is its arts and crafts director.
“I became who I am because of this camp,” Rodriguez said. “The camp has changed my life. The camp IS my life. There’s no other way to explain it.”
Camp Impact is made possible through efforts from the Jewish teenage leadership of Dallas and Tarrant County — although not all members of this hard-charging leadership are Jewish, said Lance Friedensohn, camp director.
Each summer, the camp invites roughly 125 underprivileged or homeless campers to attend the camp, at no charge.
Camp Impact provides disadvantaged children from Arlington and Grand Prairie with swimming, sports, arts and crafts, science experiments and even cooking classes.
According to its literature, the camp helps break “cycles of despair, neglect and violence” that many campers have to face daily. The organization provides activities to children ages 4-12.
Additionally, Camp Impact promotes social responsibility to both campers and counselors and staff. Camp Impact counselors range from high school freshmen to graduating seniors.
As many as 60 counselors — 95 percent of them area Jewish high school students — participate. The camp is located in South Dallas just north of Interstate 20.
The all-volunteer camp was launched by Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington in 1996 as a three-day program. Friedensohn said he has volunteered since high school.
Many of the teenagers who participate as counselors to children in need also help raise funds for the $45,000 budget the camp needs each year, the director said.
It’s a day camp for campers but a full-time camp for counselors. The campers are there from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. The counselors help plan the week’s events.
“Camp Impact is one week, one session,” Friedensohn said. “We go full throttle and then we’re done.”
Each summer the camp generally hosts more than 125 children.
“We try not to turn anyone away,” Friedensohn said.
Children are referred to the camp by social workers from local shelters such as SafeHaven of Tarrant County, the Arlington Live Shelter, Brighter Tomorrows and Title 1 Elementary schools such as Webb and Bonham Elementary.
“The counselors dedicate their year-round effects to fundraising,” Friedensohn said. “They also pay to come to this camp — to come work and volunteer.”
Counselor Rodriguez’s first experience with the camp came about because of her older sisters. At the request of her family, camp rules were adjusted to allow the very young Rodriguez to join them at the camp.
“My family lived in a small apartment complex in Grand Prairie, about a street away from where the camp picked us up,” Rodriguez said. “We kept going back, and every year we would experience something completely new — to us. Like, roller skating , swimming, cooking and many other things. We also learned about the importance of giving back to the community.”
By age 12, Rodriguez had attended the camp for nearly a decade, and was approached by camp officials about becoming a counselor. Her answer was, “yes!”
“I instantly fell in love with the kids,” she said, “I really knew what they were going through because it was the same stuff I experienced. … This has been part of my life for many, many years and as I’ve grown, I have seen myself more and more in a higher role. A bigger capacity. When I graduate college I want to be a member of the camp board of directors. And I have already talked with them about joining after graduation.”
Rodriguez is not Jewish. She is the child of immigrants and the first person in her family to attend college. Her life before Camp Impact was a flurry of law enforcement intervention, shelters and little outside support.
“The camp has literally been my support system throughout my college career,” she said. “My dad has been in and out of jail. We’ve lived from place to place. I didn’t want that life. I knew my only way to get out of the situation was to be like the people I knew at the camp. … To be somebody in life.”
While at the camp, Rodriguez said, she has received from her colleagues many of the affirmations about school and higher education that one normally receives from parents.
“These were the positive people in my life who made sure I was doing well in school and that I knew how to do well,” Rodriguez said.
Rachel Cooper, who is Jewish, is president of the Camp Impact board of directors and also helps run the camp as a co-director.
“I first started volunteering with Camp Impact at age 14, as part of the youth group with Congregation Beth Shalom,” Cooper said. “I started working there, and then as I grew up and … when the previous director stepped down and asked Lance to take over, I let Lance know I wanted to help him with the background and things blossomed from there. I hold this very close to my heart.”
Much like Rodriguez, Cooper believes her experience with Camp Impact at such a young age played a great role in molding her character.
“It really did help me — like 100 percent,” she said.
Mollie Sloter, 18, a Jewish Trinity Valley High School senior from Fort Worth, has also volunteered at Camp Impact for many years. She said she is applying for the position of “student director” this summer.
Sloter generally performs whatever tasks are needed and currently helps keep supplies together.
“My sister is a freshman who also (participates in) Camp Impact,” Sloter said. “There are a few other kids in the school who do it as well. I’m sure multiple freshman and a few eighth-graders will join us as first-year counselors.”
Getting each year’s camp prepared involves a lot of organization, shopping and flawless execution, Sloter said.
The camp, meanwhile, is becoming well-known for its yummy breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks, and the promotion of oatmeal as a dish to be enjoyed, she said.
“Lance’s mom is in charge of all the food, but she becomes ‘The Oatmeal Lady’ with a bucket of oatmeal,” Sloter said. “Even if kids don’t like it at first, she tells them this elaborate, ridiculous story about how oatmeal is good for them but it somehow got stolen … By the end of the week she has them loving the oatmeal.”