News of refugees seeking asylum comes as no surprise in this international climate.
When Elk Grove’s Lucy Beckett, 17, set out for Seattle in the summer of 2017, she had no idea the impact it would have on her future. She knew she was going to be working at the Mitzvah Corps Pacific Northwest summer camp for refugee children, but she never dreamed what would happen next.
After watching the way that the campers responded to the experience, she knew the power summer camp could have.
Lucy went home determined to bring this type of transformational experience to refugee populations closer to her home. She immediately began working to start Camp Nefesh, an organization created to bring the typical American summer camp experience to refugee children in the Sacramento area.
Located in Sacramento’s Congregation B’nai Israel, Camp Nefesh, which in Hebrew means “soul, spirit, and life,” works hand-in-hand with Opening Doors, a local social services organization. They offer children new to the country the opportunity to connect with one another as well as get acclimated with their new home all while swimming, dancing, playing, and just being kids.
“I was in awe at how impactful the experience was for the teens and children alike, and wondered why we don’t have such a camp to assist our large refugee population in Sacramento. When I came back home, I was determined to start what has now become Camp Nefesh,” Lucy said.
She immediately met with the clergy at Congregation B’nai Israel with her proposal to start the camp, and they agreed to host the camp.
“Jews have a special connection to refugees and immigrants, as we’ve been in the same position several times throughout history,” Lucy said. “Because the Jewish people have such a call to action, our synagogue often works with Opening Doors, a local refugee resettlement agency to assist new arrivals to the United States. With such an already established partnership, it made reaching out an easy decision. Opening Doors helps refugees and immigrants in the Sacramento area fill out the registration forms for Camp Nefesh, and helps with family communication, transportation logistics, and provides some of the supplies.”
Lucy is among 15 recipients accepting this year’s 13th Annual Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, a prestigious $36,000 award that honors the work of teen leaders who are committed to igniting change in their communities and around the globe.
Since 2007, the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards has awarded more than $4 million to 129 teens in recognition of their vision, innovation, and demonstration of leadership – the vision of Bay Area Philanthropist Helen Diller, the quiet force behind The Helen Diller Family Foundation.
The goal of Camp Nefesh is twofold. First is to create a safe, fun space for refugee children to learn, play, and grow. The unique environment also gives children a chance to bond with others who have shared similar experiences, better acclimating them their new home. Another goal is to help alleviate the stress placed on refugee families. By taking care of their children, parents are able to go grocery shopping, look for jobs, and have alone time.
“Most of the children have come with their families on Special Immigrant Visas from Afghanistan – their father worked for the U.S. military, and the families became targets by the Taliban because of this,” Lucy said. “The kids that come to Camp Nefesh have experienced so much trauma and change, and Camp Nefesh allows them to have a safe space where they can make new friends and have fun. Camp Nefesh lets these children take back the childhood they lost because of all they’ve been through.”
That said, Camp Nefesh has given refugee children a summer experience that many take for granted. Each day at Camp Nefesh includes some sort of theme. Activities for the day will follow that theme. For example, “Under the Sea Day” included swimming, sharks and minnows, and more. Many activities are created to educate our campers. Camp Nefesh also offers a “Holiday Day” where children learn about Halloween, Valentine’s Day, 4th of July, and more. They do everything from dressing up and trick or treating to making and delivering Valentines to each other and having a Fourth of July Picnic at Land Park, which is conveniently located across the street, Lucy explained.
Campers also learn the importance of helping others less fortunate than ourselves. This included making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the homeless, and making friendship bracelets for children with special needs in Bosnia.
Lucy said that Camp Nefesh works to inspire and empower other young people to take action for what they believe in, and gain experience in a leadership position at Camp Nefesh.
“Many teens have so much potential to make change, they just need encouragement to do so,” she said. Additionally, Lucy, a recent graduate of Cosumnes Oaks High School, will attend UC San Diego in the fall and wants the camp to be sustainable. She plans to do as much as she can from afar, but she’s slowly “passing on” Camp Nefesh to teens in Sacramento so that it can continue for as long as possible. New this year, they’ve started a teen planning committee, which will help plan and run Camp Nefesh, she said.
Lucy said it’s an honor to be selected as a 2019 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award recipient.
“I’m so grateful to the Helen Diller Family Foundation for giving me this opportunity to further my vision for helping others,” she said.
Lucy encourages any teen who is leading a volunteer service project in their community to check out awards like the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards and go to www.DillerTeenAwards.org to learn more about the Helen Diller Family Foundation and the awards program. Following the luncheon on Aug. 19, a video spotlighting the 2019 award recipients will also be available.