Elk Grove teen finds work on summer camp for refugee kids rewarding in more ways than one

Congregation B’nai Israel hosts summer camp for Afghan refugee children

Take a peek inside a summer camp for Afghan Refugee children hosted by Congregation B'nai Israel in Sacramento, Calif., where they learned about American holidays including Halloween.
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Take a peek inside a summer camp for Afghan Refugee children hosted by Congregation B'nai Israel in Sacramento, Calif., where they learned about American holidays including Halloween.

On the grassy lawn outside Congregation B’nai Israel in south Sacramento, a kiddie pool filled with cool water and three floats holds several children, splashing and yelling. Some don’t have bathing suits, but that doesn’t matter: They have jumped straight in in their shirts and pants.

It’s all part of “Under the Sea” day at Camp Nefesh, a summer camp experience for Afghan refugee children founded last summer by Lucy Beckett, a recent graduate of Cosumnes Oaks High School in Elk Grove, to give them something they have never encountered.

Her efforts have been rewarded: Beckett was one of 15 winners of the 13th Annual Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, a prestigious $36,000 prize that rewards teen leaders who catalyze change in their communities. Not only has Beckett secured future funding for Camp Nefesh, but for her future philanthropic projects and tuition at UC San Diego, where she plans to start college in the fall.

“A lot of the kids have been forced to grow up way faster than they should have, and I’m happy to be able to give them their childhood back,” Beckett said.

This summer, Beckett’s time has been devoted to running Camp Nefesh, which she founded after volunteering at a summer camp for refugee children in Seattle run by the International Rescue Committee.

From June 17-28, Beckett dedicated at least 12 hours a day to the camp, hosting 80 campers over two weeklong sessions and organizing a small army of 40 volunteers.

Each day, the kids arrive in school buses at the synagogue at 3600 Riverside Blvd. At first, they are timid and quiet. Within 20 minutes, Beckett says, they’re “superexcited” and on the go.

“After the first day, they come running off the bus, ready to play,” Beckett said.

Each day’s activities revolve around a theme, usually dedicated to teaching kids about the United States.

Beckett planned a “holiday day,” where the kids celebrated Halloween and went trick-or-treating, followed by a Fourth of July picnic in a nearby park. Another day was “book day,” when Beckett and the volunteers amassed dozens of books from donations, and the kids chose up to 15 favorites to bring home.

“It was so funny because the littlest kids who barely spoke a word of English would pick out the biggest books and say, by next summer, I’ll be able to read this,” Beckett said.

Beckett believes that the summer camp experience is indispensable for these kids. Not only does it acclimate them to a classroom setting to prepare them for school in the fall, but it also gives them a taste of summer camp — the carefree, safe childhood experience that Beckett thinks every child should have.

“I love seeing kids who have come from such traumatic backgrounds be carefree,” Beckett said. “I’ve always loved summer camp. It’s important for every child to have that experience.”

Next year, Beckett plans to major in Judaic Studies at UC San Diego and to pursue more philanthropic projects.

“I’m not sure yet what projects I’ll pursue, but I am very passionate about immigrant and refugee rights,” Beckett said.

Editors note: This story was corrected July 19, 2019, to say that Lucy Beckett attended Cosumnes Oaks High School, not Elk Grove High, and worked for 12 hours per day, not per week, at Camp Nefesh.

Candice Wang, from Yale, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee interested in climate change, sustainability, socioeconomic inequality, and culture. She grew up in Connecticut.