Campers are leaving a piece of the past in the Margaret & Lou Schwartz Butterfly Garden of Remembrance this week.
Camp Special Olympics Athletic Retreat (SOAR) is taking part in The Butterfly Project at the Levine Jewish Community Center at Shalom Park through Friday, June 13, to allow campers to reflect on the experiences of Holocaust victims. Those experiences, while not the same, parallel some of the issues campers have dealt with in their own lives, camp organizers said.
Camp SOAR seeks to encourage current Special Olympics athletes to try new sports and recruit new athletes to participate in Special Olympics and other activities. Bob Bowler, founder and organizer of Camp SOAR, started the project 14 years ago to give disabled individuals a “quality camp experience.” He said many campers don’t experience camp because of cost or potential safety issues, but Camp SOAR is free to all campers as it is funded completely by donations and run by volunteers.
“The camp is a chance for these individuals to experience camp life, make friends, build self esteem and social skills,” Bowler said.
Campers have the opportunity to participate in various sports they may not have experienced before. The camp had 356 campers total attend the two camp sessions, as well as more than 428 volunteers to act as “buddies” for the campers and help run activities.
“My favorite part of the camp is the tennis because we get to hit the balls,” camper Russell Dabak, from Charlotte, said while taking a break Monday, June 9.
An addition this year is campers’ involvement in The Butterfly Project. The Levine Jewish Community Center has commemorated Holocaust victims since 2008 through a large butterfly sculpture by artist Paul Rousso in the Margaret & Lou Schwartz Butterfly Garden of Remembrance. The sculpture is covered in butterflies decorated with art and inscriptions from numerous individuals to represent a child killed in the Holocaust. The sculpture and The Butterfly Project memorialize the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust in an effort to “teach the lessons of the Holocaust and what can happen when prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination are allowed to flourish,” according to the organization’s website.
The Levine Jewish Community Center hopes its local project teaches kindness and helps to eliminate a tolerance for hate, according to Dana Kapustin, The Butterfly Project coordinator for the center.
“We teach children not to pass judgment on what’s on the outside, but to get to know the person before we judge them,” Kapustin said. “We need to interrupt acts of prejudices.”
Kapustin and her team of volunteers have taught thousands of school-aged children about the lessons of the Holocaust, she said, though pointed out the project also is an important reminder for adults about the impact of prejudices – prejudices many Camp SOAR campers may have had to deal with in their lives, Bowler said.
“Our campers can potentially experience isolation and discrimination throughout their lives,” Bowler said. “We want to break down barriers and misconceptions.”
Each camper will paint a bisque ceramic butterfly with glazes that will be fired and then affixed to The Butterfly Project sculpture with the help of camp art director Eileen Schwartz. Schwartz, who is now in her fifth year as a volunteer, is always looking for different types of arts and crafts project for campers that go “outside the box.”
“People with disabilities often struggle with acceptance and opportunity,” Schwartz said. “They want the opportunity to experience freedom, which is why they can also identify with the butterfly. Butterflies don’t struggle and can move around freely. A butterfly is a symbol of freedom.”
Campers also will meet with a handful of Holocaust survivors on Friday, June 13, for a question-and-answer session that Schwartz said will help give the art project even more meaning.
Both Camp SOAR and The Butterfly Project rely heavily on volunteers to help run the programs. James Sirois, a first-time Camp SOAR volunteer this week and student at the Cannon School, said he thought it was an interesting experience.
“I came here because I wanted to learn to take care of people like this so I can run a camp like this one day,” James, 17, said.
Fellow volunteer Susan Rebich said she wants to attract more young people as volunteers.
“We are planting the seed for future special educators,” Rebich said.
Find more information on Camp SOAR at www.sonc.net/camp-soar. Anyone interested in volunteering for The Butterfly Project can email Kapustin at firstname.lastname@example.org.