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Friendship Circle honors an unforgettable camper

New Jersey Jewish News
August 24, 2006

by Robert Wiener
NJJN Staff Writer

She only lived until the age of eight. But the impression Allison Rosenfield left on friends, family, and the others whose lives she touched is now memorialized with a day camp named in her honor that is run by the Friendship Circle for special-needs children.

Four months after the Short Hills girl’s death from complications of cerebral palsy, her own friendship circle gathered at the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany to honor her spirit by dedicating Allie’s Camp.

Program organizers thanked contributors who have enabled them to hire professional staff and double the camp’s enrollment.

The Friendship Circle — a project of the Lubavitch Rabbinical College of America and a beneficiary of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ — brings together children with special needs and teenage volunteers to work with them.

For four weeks every year — two in late December, two in late August — Allie was one of some 20 children who were befriended and mentored at the Friendship Circle’s camp programs. The camps operate out of the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston and the Lautenberg Family JCC in Whippany.

“It was set up during summer and winter vacations seasons, when these children are not in any other programs. It is a respite for their parents and it’s wonderful for their kids,” said Sheila Appel, Allison’s grandmother and a program associate at the Holocaust Council of MetroWest.

“The kids go on trips, they do arts and crafts, and it has some Jewish content. Nothing is too hard for them. These kids bloom” in the program, said Appel.

The camp is just one of many activities that bring together some 200 special-needs children and about 600 teenage volunteers, who spend weekends and after-school hours as their young charges’ friends and counselors.

“It’s amazing what they’ve done collectively,” said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum of Livingston, executive director of the program. “Everyone benefits from it. The children and their families benefit from the respite, and the volunteers grow through their interactions with these children and the lessons they learn from the kids.”

In addition to serving as camp counselors, the teenagers visit the children’s homes for weekly play dates and spend time with them at Sunday morning programs, holiday events, and sporting events.

From tragedy to mitzva

Together with Allison’s parents, Nancy and David Rosenfield, Grossbaum came up with the idea of naming the camp in her honor.

“After she passed away, when we closed our eyes and thought of Allison, we remembered her in camp. With her smile and her determination, she enjoyed herself so much,” said the rabbi. “That’s how we came up with the idea to name this Allie’s Camp.”

Nancy Rosenfield said “the camp was everything” to her daughter. “She knew she could do the same things that other kids could do. She always came home with a smile. It was a great part of her life. It is bittersweet to me because we lost her only four months ago, but Allie would be happy to know her tragedy was turned into a mitzva.”

That smile also touched one of her volunteer counselors, Maya Schechner of Short Hills, who spoke poetically at the dedication.

“The power of a light bulb is measured in watts. The power of a battery is measured in volts. The power of a voice in measured in decibels. But nobody has yet found a way to measure the power of a smile,” said the teenager.

“As anyone who met Allie would agree, her smile could cause a power surge. Allie had little muscle control, and she couldn’t talk. Her communication with the world was her smile. So when she smiled, knowing how hard her life was and knowing that she was happy anyway brought on an incredible sense of joy. Allie’s smile was like a window to her heart. Allie’s Camp will bring smiles.”

In a tearful speech, Allison’s father, David, spoke to roomful of campers, counselors, and supporters. “The camp is a wonderful way to carry on Allie’s legacy over the years and, I hope, over the decades. Allie was a special child,” he said. “Her smile could light up a room. No matter how difficult things were for her, she would always give you that smile.”

David Rosenfield said he dreamed of his daughter just hours before coming to the dedication. “She was there, and she was saying, ‘I’m so happy for the camp being named after me. That’s the way my memory will live on.’”