October 19, 2019

A camp with a big heart

For the past seven summers, Hilary Kip’s twin boys have attended Camp Chesed, a Reseda-based program for kids with special needs now headed into its 20th year. There’s a very simple reason Kip sends them year after year.

Every day, she said, “They leave happy, and they return happy.” 

Whether it’s a trip to Disneyland or an afternoon at the park, the Van Nuys mother said her sons, who are on the autism spectrum, get excited about the modest program making a big difference.

The camp, whose name means “lovingkindness” in Hebrew and which served 38 people last year, is a true family operation, with the avuncular patriarch Jacques Hay at the wheel. Hay, 65, of West Hills said it has its roots in his daughter Jalena’s mitzvah project from when she was 11.

It came on the heels of a project by his older son, Joshua, who had just hosted a wildly successful fundraiser for a CSUN basketball recruit who lost both legs following a horrific car accident and needed money to purchase prosthetics. 

“My daughter wanted to do something,” Hay said. “I had always wanted to set up a camp for kids with disabilities.”

So they started Camp Chesed together. Not that any of Hay’s own kids had special needs. In large part, the camp is a huge gesture of gratitude for this.

“I knew several children who were Jewish with disabilities who were neglected in school,” said Hay, a teddy bear of a man who owns Award Winners trophy shop in Northridge. 

He also saw the camp as an opportunity to build character in his own children. 

“They are healthy. They are wise. They are light-years ahead of me. They realize how fortunate they are,” he said.

When Camp Chesed began, it was a small, one-week program for 17 kids. Last year, the day camp lasted two weeks. Campers are also invited to attend Purim and Chanukah celebrations during the year. Participants must be Jewish and at least 6 years old.

Home base for campers is Diane S. Leichman High School in Reseda, a Los Angeles Unified School District campus for students with special needs. But the campers go on regular field trips to places such as the Santa Barbara Zoo and, last year, Whiteman Airport in Pacoima. There, the kids went on plane and helicopter rides and, in some cases, even got to pilot a plane for a couple of seconds. This year, Hay hopes to take campers to Agua Dulce Airport in Santa Clarita for longer plane rides and a carnival, as well as to Universal Studios. In the past, campers and their families have enjoyed trips to Disneyland as well.

Last year, Camp Chesed added a sports component. Campers worked with college athletes at CSUN, where they were coached in basketball, baseball, swimming, soccer and tennis. 

Other activities at Camp Chesed include singing, participating in a drum circle, dancing, art projects, and just spending downtime with other campers and counselors. Attendees participate in daily prayers, enjoy kosher food and celebrate Shabbat.

“Most of the kids like to say, ‘You know, I come to camp just so I can hang out and be normal,’ ” Hay said.

Hay’s wife, Judith, is very involved in the camp, and Jalena, who now lives in New York, returned two summers ago to supervise the camp. Joshua, now a Florida resident, handles registration and coordinating staff, while his younger brother, Jonathan, who lives in Pico-Robertson, is active in fundraising and usually assists for a day or two in the summer. 

Because the camp is free to participants, Hay actively fundraises throughout the year. He does not have a set goal but estimates needing approximately $900 per camper. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles contributes between $3,000 and $5,000 a year, for which he said he is grateful. But, Hay said, “99 percent” of funds come from individual donors. Local philanthropist Maynard Ostrow, who passed away in October, was especially generous, contributing “well into the six figures” over the years, Hay said. In fact, the official name of the program has been updated to Camp Chesed/Camp Maynard in the donor’s memory.

The counselors — most of whom are high-school students — all donate their time, and there are two to three designated for each camper. Even so, Hay finds that he has to turn away eager volunteers each year.

When Camp Chesed started, most of the campers had Down syndrome, but now many are on the autism spectrum, like Kip’s sons, who plan on attending again this summer. 

“I know for a fact they enjoy the outings very much,” she said. “They loved being active and having college-level athletes working with them.” 

One of the things that really stands out to Kip is the camp’s family feel. 

“There’s a real sense of good will … a very good sense of welcoming,” she said.

That’s no surprise, with Hay at the helm.

“It takes a lot of my time,” he said. “But it makes me whole.”