Jax resizedLong before the stage lights and the screaming fans, Jax, one of the finalists from the latest season of American Idol, spent her summers singing her heart out at Surprise Lake Camp, a UJA-Federation beneficiary agency.

Jax’s mother, Jill Miskanic, was a camper at Surprise Lake herself and it really shaped her sense of her own identity. So as an adult, she and her husband briefly joined the camp staff, which meant that Jax and her brother, Matthew, were part of camp life from an early age.

“My little brother and I never wanted to come home. … Sleepaway camp was essential in both of our lives,” Jax says. “It kind of taught us how to socialize.”

It’s also where she got some of her first performing roles. Even before she was technically old enough to be a camper, Jax could hold the spotlight, shining in shows like Little Shop of Horrors, Shrek, and Annie.

“I always did theater at camp,” she recalls. “Learning scripts and memorizing lines played a huge role in who I am as performer and as a person in general.”

When she was older, Jax stopped attending not just camp but public school, opting for home schooling so she could have more flexibility to work with a voice coach and pursue a career in music. But when her big break came and she made it onto American Idol, she felt that in some ways, camp had prepared her for the challenges of the show.

“Camp played a big role in how I fended for myself and survived on Idol,” Jax says. Much like at camp, contestants on the show are “in such close quarters, and living together and learning how to love each other and accept each other’s quirks and flaws and everything. … When you’re so close with people 24/7 you almost have no choice but to become family.”

Now that Idol’s second-to-last season has wrapped up, Jax and the other top finalists are staying busy, kicking off a cross-country tour performing covers they made their own and original songs they’ve been writing.

But no matter how busy her summer gets, camp still holds a special place in it for Jax.

“I go to hang out,” she says. “I have a lot of friends there. I go to visit my brother every summer. I love everybody there.”