Justin Spencer-Linzie (far right) poses for a photo with some Frost Valley campers
Imagine a no-cost weekend health retreat with your family at a 5,000-acre camp in the heart of the Catskill Mountains. Cell phones and other technology is banned. In exchange, families can spend the day hiking, zip-lining through the woods, swimming, boating, practicing archery, sitting around the campfire, stargazing, enjoying healthy meals and learning how to prepare them.
About 75 individuals from Camden were able to enjoy such a two-night weekend last year at Frost Valley YMCA. The healthy family weekend retreat provides people of all ages and abilities with enriching, even life-altering, outdoor experiences, access to nature, adventure, environmental education, and fun.
Justin Spencer-Linzie, Director of Community Youth Programs at the YMCA of Burlington and Camden Counties, and Valeria Galarza, Senior Project Manager with Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, accompanied each group of Camden families on their weekend health retreat.
“This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, provided by our Y and Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, takes people away from their daily headaches and struggles and allows them to enjoy their families in a carefree, health-focused environment,” said Spencer-Linzie.
Working with Camden community partners, Spencer-Linzie and Galarza recruited the families and planned the logistics for the Frost Valley weekend. They also checked in with the families after the retreat to maintain relationships and assess whether families are making behavioral changes. “Following our first trip in January 2016, one of the moms told me that she bought her son a set of cookware because he is now into preparing healthy meals. Also, acting on her Health Action Plan, she has been able to get her diabetes under control,” Spencer-Linzie said.
The health retreats took place on four different weekends throughout 2016 starting Friday night through Sunday afternoon. The Camden campers were joined by other NJPHK-sponsored families from Vineland, New Brunswick, Trenton, and Newark.
The retreats have a three-pronged focus: families participate in healthy cooking lessons and demonstrations, learn ways to grow food in an urban setting, and engage in a variety of outdoor activities. A cornerstone of the weekend is the Health Action Plan. Dr. Darrin Anderson, NJPHK State Deputy Director, brings the adults together to review best health practices for themselves and their families and discuss how to make small changes to live a healthier lifestyle when they return home.
A four-year veteran of the YMCA, Spencer-Linzie is passionate about the health retreats and blessed to be a part of it. “For some family members, this weekend was the first time they had been outside of Camden,” he said.
He recalled taking a family with a teenager on a night hike. “After the hike, we stopped at the tennis court. We all sat on the tennis court and looked up at the sky. The teen exclaimed that he had no idea the sky was so big, and there were so many stars. It’s rewarding to see firsthand families’ discoveries, whether it’s about the environment, healthy food or physical activity.”
Spencer-Linzie works in strategic advancement at the YMCA of Burlington and Camden Counties, overseeing youth programs including Soccer for Success® (funded through U.S. Soccer Foundation, Campbell Soup Company and United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey) and Watershed Education by Bike (funded by the William Penn Foundation). He also coordinates summer initiatives, such as the Fit & Swim program (funded through Campbell Soup Foundation) and he helps Rutgers-Camden implement their summer programs. He grew up in South Jersey and started working with the Y as a junior at Springfield College in Massachusetts where he majored in recreation and sports management and minored in YMCA Studies. (Springfield College is a training school for YMCA professionals; students can earn a degree in YMCA Management.)
He loves being active and engaging with the community. He sees the healthy family retreats as a full-circle way to engage the whole family in making small lifestyle changes that can lead to healthier lives.