What Leora Hafri did this Summer
It’s 7:30 a.m. —or “Zero Seven Thirty” as they say around here— and the safety and security briefing room of the Fort Indiantown Gap National Guard Training Base holds its morning security briefing. The briefing covers what groups or units are using which of the training center’s various facilities or ranges, what heat category they expect—being mid July they expect highs in the mid 80’s with 90% humidity. They distribute a sign in sheet, radios, SOP (standard operating procedure) binders, facility keys and radio call signs.
As roll is called a subtle rainbow of camouflage designate the different branches of active duty military represented by the meeting’s 20 attendees who officiously acknowledge their presence. Well 19 of 20. One of the people in the meeting, her call sign is 2-7, is in a uniform all her own: sandals, athletic shorts and a Steve’s Club t-shirt, Leora Hafri. While the other 19 members of the military, and the units they represent, are there to train to protect and defend our country’s present, Leora wants to train 28 underserved and at-risk kids to help improve and enrich the country’s future.
Leora, Steve’s Club National Program’s Senior Program Director, has organized and run the Steve’s Club Summer Leadership Camp for the last three years. From the pre-camp planning and organizing to the nonstop show-runner lifestyle during the camp itself, Leora’s unflagging effort is the engine that makes the event run, and for one week out of the year, Steve’s Club National Program is a place.
For the vast majority of the year, Steve’s Club National program isn’t fixed in any one place. It exists in the communications ether of conference calls and this website; it exists in the shared philosophies and mission of the affiliate Local Clubs. But if you wanted to, say, go visit Steve’s Club National Program, there’s only one week a year that’s possible and that’s the week of camp.
Like Brigadoon, the fictional village in the Highlands of Scotland, which only exists for 1 day every 100 hundred years emerging out of the mists of an idyllic landscape, Steve’s Club National Program emerges from the sweat and toil of Leora and the other organizers and appears for one week in the barracks, mess hall, and leadership/obstacle courses of a National Guard Training Base in Pennsylvania. For Leora, this coming together makes camp worth the effort.
“Camp is so special because, not only does it allow us to meet in person,” she said. “But it’s an opportunity for kids from all over the country to come together, and meet people who they never would have met before but who they have shared experiences with.”
She also acknowledges that there is an almost supernatural aspect to camp. “It’s so hard to describe camp without using the word magical, but transformative is what it is. It’s transformative for every one who comes, even if for just a few hours.”
Just like in any magic trick, the effect only works when the conjurer puts in an inordinate amount of work beforehand. In the case of camp, Leora spent almost every hour of the 6 weeks leading up to this year’s first day getting everything ready. She had to don the hats of many different roles; travel agent for coordinating the departures and arrivals of the attendees, staff and coaches, event coordinator for ensuring all of the catering and activities were scheduled, talent recruiter to make sure all the coaches were engaged and had background checks, and safety warden going to the Base to get range safety instruction and certifications necessary to gain access, she even had to learn the phonetic alphabet (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot).
Despite this laborious schedule, Leora is quick to credit the efforts of the greater Steve’s Club community, which helped make this year such an overwhelming success. For the first time in 2017 the National Program asked Local Clubs to shoulder some of the cost of camp by sponsoring the athletes they send. Rather than reducing the total number of participants, this year attendance set a record.
“We had 28 kids, 22 boys and 6 girls, more than any of the previous 4 years,” she said. “These kids are the leaders of their local programs. The Local Clubs were selecting the kids that deserved to go and putting fundraising dollars behind it. So the kids this year were amazing.”
If you follow the Instagram or Facebook feeds of the National Program during camp, it’s easy to pick up on the show-stopping elements. The group-shot in front of the ginormous climbing tower and cargo net on the obstacle course, the rows of kids front racking barbells with quintessentially military barracks in the background, not to mention the hikes in the woods, and games by the lake and on the basketball courts. You can nearly hear the bugle calls of reveille and the rotors of helicopters flying overhead, or see the phalanxes of soldiers marching in time and counting cadence. But for Leora, the real magic of camp happens in a much less ‘gramable setting: the nightly sharing circle. The evening event where athletes give their highs and lows for the day and discuss their own stories.
“In the sharing circle the staff and Local Club leaders create this environment of a community that really cares about the athletes. Even the first night of sharing circle, the kids are able to open up and be vulnerable. They share things that maybe they’ve never told their closest friends or family, but in this safe space, they share it with people who just a few hours before were perfect strangers.”
It’s always difficult for Leora to discuss camp without emotion overwhelming her, but it’s impossible for her to discuss 2017 without her voice cracking and tears welling; 2017 was the first year that 4 kids from her Local Club in Philadelphia attended camp. This gave her the ability to see not only the magic of transforming kids, but how it transforms the Local Club leaders as well.
“The amount of time you get to spend with the kids in the gym week to week is so fleeting. If you have 20 kids in your class, it’s really hard to learn who the kids really are. But at camp you get to see them outside the gym and form this connection that you never would have otherwise. I’ve gone to every Steve’s Club workout at the gym since camp ended, just to be with these kids. They truly are my inspiration.”