The Colgate Scene
March 2001
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Creating light

Jodi Berkman Scheinfeld and her husband Rob are campaigning to prevent the kind of camp tragedy that befell them.

by Rebecca Costello

Jodi Berkman Scheinfeld '82 and her son Jeremy
Jodi Berkman Scheinfeld '82 and her husband Rob have been working to create light after a tragedy brought darkness upon their family.

     In July of 1998 while attending summer camp in Elizaville, New York, their oldest son, ten-year-old Jeremy, drowned after being taken by his counselors into a storm-swollen river during an off-site chase game. Several other boys were almost lost, as well.

     "My very first thinking was, how could this have happened?" Schein-feld remembers. To Jodi and Rob, Camp Scatico seemed a safe place where they had met as campers themselves, and worked together as counselors.

     "When I first heard Jeremy was missing and there was water, I asked, was he wearing a life jacket? No." In fact, the supervising counselors had no water-safety or communications equipment with them. Through the county investigation, the Scheinfelds learned that if certain rules had been followed, and with the proper planning, supervision and training of camp staff, their tragedy could have easily been prevented.

     "As we were dealing with this, a word kept coming to me," Scheinfeld remembers. "I thought back to Terrence Des Pres' Literature of the Holocaust class at Colgate. He discussed with us the meaning of the word `responsibility' as the `ability to respond.' I felt a responsibility to prevent this from happening to other parents. I felt a responsibility to my son. I knew he would say that something had to be done, because he was that kind of kid. He was an amazing child."

     The Scheinfelds, who live in New Rochelle, N.Y., began a campaign to improve camp safety, as well as to help parents make informed decisions about the camps they send their children to.

     "My son's name in Hebrew means `source of light,'" says Scheinfeld, "and I'll tell you that all of the work we've been doing is in that spirit of trying to create light."

     As a first step, the Scheinfelds built a website called Jeremy's Camp Safety Guide for Parents (www.campsafetyguide.com). The guidelines suggest questions parents should ask and are based on the state sanitary code and camp safety regulations.

     "We felt the website would encourage parents to have very important discussions with camp directors and other people to whom they entrust their child's care -- to ask questions and not assume that safety protocol is in place." The website also puts camp directors on notice that parents expect protocols to be in place, Scheinfeld explains.

     "It's a difficult enterprise; camps have a lot of turnover. But that doesn't mean safety should be compromised."

     The media has helped build momentum for their awareness effort.

     "There was a lot of graphic television footage, and although it's very hard to look at, it's very powerful." The Scheinfelds appeared on Good Morning America as well as numerous other TV news programs, and articles have appeared in several newspapers including the New York Times and Good Housekeeping and American Health.

     A major issue is the lack of uniform minimum standards. The Scheinfelds are supporting efforts to pass legislation that would more comprehensively address safety at children's camps. At the federal level is a bill titled the Recreational Camp Safety Act (HR 266). Sponsored by Congressman Shays, the law would require recreational camps to report information concerning deaths, injuries and illnesses to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and establish a database and a President's Advisory Council on Recreational Camps.

     "Regulations vary alarmingly," explains Scheinfeld, "from some states that make an effort, such as New York, to those that don't. We're trying to get anybody we know to encourage their representatives to sponsor the bill."

     At the state level, the Scheinfelds have appeared before the NYS Camp Safety Advisory Council, which makes recommendations to the NYS Health Department concerning the state sanitary code and publishes guidelines for children's camps.

     "They are working on some of our concerns," says Scheinfeld, although the council dismissed several as not feasible. The Scheinfelds brought those concerns to their state senator, Suzi Oppenheimer, who has drafted a bill directly in response to their tragedy. The bill proposes that the Department of Health improve the advisory council through increased representation of parents and timely appointments to vacant positions, and conduct a study to determine what it would take to establish three things: a minimum standard of training and testing for camp counselors, mandated annual workshops for health inspectors and camp directors, and state monitoring and warnings for hazardous water conditions. It's a painfully slow process, but Scheinfeld remarks that the state health department has been very responsive to their voice. Improvements already include enhanced camp information on the state's website, a safety outreach plan, and distribution of a water hazard resource directory to camps. Statutory changes also have been made, including an increase in the fine (from $250 to $2000) that can be levied per sanitary code violation. Another organization that has been helpful and ready to lend a hand where it can is the American Academy of Pediatrics.

     In the meantime, the American Camping Association, which is the only organization of its kind, does accredit camps that meet up to 300 standards for health, safety and program quality. Just over 2,000 -- about one-quarter of U.S. camps -- are ACA members. In February 1999, the Scheinfelds spoke at the ACA's national convention in Chicago, to ask for help to heighten awareness of safety issues. In Jeremy's memory, the ACA developed a video for camp directors and counselors, Who will care when I'm not there?

     "The video provides a forum for discussion of how counselors can manage risk." Scheinfeld remarks. "It alerts them to the awesomeness of their responsibility for children over the summer, and it encourages them to be attuned to safety judgements they are going to have to make.

     "We still hope that the ACA will improve their own standards. Of their 300 standards, fewer than 20 are mandatory. And none of the current mandatory standards could have saved Jeremy's life."

     In addition to her class with Des Pres, several other Colgate experiences helped Scheinfeld through this difficult time. "I took Shakespeare with Margaret Maurer, and did an independent study on A Winter's Tale with Deborah Knuth. Those feelings of being in the throes of tragedy, those intense emotions -- I had read them, dwelled in them briefly -- and in some way that offered a source of strength."

     A class she took on politics in education introduced her to navigating the government to effect change.

     "We had absolutely no experience with websites and politicians, being on television, doing interviews with the press," notes Jodi, "but Colgate gives you the type of education where you are able to meet a new situation and respond to changing conditions. I can say, `I can find out about this and I can do this.'

     "Also, my classmates and professors from Colgate, even people I didn't even know very well, were so kind, asking what they could do, and actually doing things."

     The community of New Rochelle responded as well, in many ways. "We set forth three areas for donations, to places that meant a lot to Jeremy -- the public library, which established an annual summer poetry workshop because he loved poetry; the New Rochelle Fund for Educational Excellence, which founded a publishing center, and our synagogue, which set up a computer learning center for kids."

     Scheinfeld says they hope their initiatives will give their other children -- Sarah, 11, Daniel, 9, Zachary, 6, and baby Corey, who joined the family in July -- "comfort and a sense that it's important to take a stand. When they're older, I want them to know what was done."

     The Scheinfelds have now whittled down their efforts. "Our goal was to reach out to organizations and institutions that could start the wheels turning, but there comes a point where it's emotionally exhausting." They've turned down some television engagements -- but they're committed to maintaining the website, and to the legislation. Rob was recently appointed by Governor Pataki and confirmed by the Senate to membership on the NYS Camp Safety Advisory Council. And Jodi, who has worked as a freelance writer since giving up teaching full-time in 1990 to raise the family, is hoping to publish a children's book on coping with losing a sibling.

     "There's so much energy from grief; part of ours became an effusion of things that had to be done," says Jodi Scheinfeld. "Now the momentum is there."

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