Camp Leaders Making a Difference

by Teresa Nicodemus

As professionals in the field of camp we make a difference. Like the stars that punctuate the night sky with their shimmering lights, camp staff hold a beacon of light for many children and adults. In big ways and small ways, every day, camp professionals are enriching lives. Camping Magazine endeavors to give you a glimpse of the power of making a difference that the camp experience lends to those who answer the call. Although countless volumes of Camping Magazine would be needed to tell the stories of camp professionals who have made a difference, please enjoy the stories of five camp professionals who join you in the journey, who are shining examples of what it means to touch lives in a positive and profound way.

Charles Butler
Retired from National Institute of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as Supervisor of Recreation Therapy and Coordinator of Recreation for Camp Fantastic, Winchester, Virginia

I've worked with children at camp for over forty years. My original campers are now over forty years old. Many are providing similar camp experiences for their own children. It's rewarding to know I made a difference in their lives.

In the rolling acres of farm country along the eastern shore in Chestertown, Maryland, a stone's throw from Chesapeake Bay, Charles Butler played with his buddies and siblings as a child in the mid forties/early fifties. "I had the space to be adventurous," says Butler. "We called the rural areas ‘the woods'; now, they call it ‘parks.' We had plenty of areas to go camping." The pristine wilderness that surrounded his family home served as motivation for his love of the outdoors and fostered in Butler an appreciation for the growth opportunities lent by outdoor adventure. Hours of boyhood fun spent around campfires, investigating creek beds, and appreciating the night sounds of woodsy evenings outdoors at camp as a boy scout, all were factors in Butler's choice of a career in the camp field.

In 1972, Butler began running day camp programs for the Washington, D.C., Recreation Department, which served inner-city youth from the D.C. area and children with special needs, including mental impairments and physical disabilities. "There is such satisfaction in knowing you are helping children with special needs who don't ordinarily have opportunities to get outside and play," comments Butler. "I contributed to the growth of these young children by helping them enjoy life; these special times are needed sometimes much more than they are for a child with normal abilities."

Butler remembers taking the inner-city youth on overnight trips and witnessing the awe in the children who only knew the light and noise of city life. "We took the kids to wilderness areas throughout Maryland and Virginia and gave them opportunities to get involved in the outdoors— to see the darkness without the glow of city lights, to see the nocturnal animals, and look up and see the stars. The kids even asked me what the stars were, because they had never seen them before. I saw how much enjoyment they got out of these trips, and I realized this is where I needed to concentrate my career efforts."

Almost a decade later, Butler was asked to sit on a committee to create a specialized camp for children with cancer and HIV under the auspices of an organization called Special Love Inc. based in Winchester, Virginia. One of the goals of the organization was to incorporate camp and the outdoors into a unique camp program specifically for these special children. Butler expanded his work with the organization from committee member to recreation director for the newly formed Camp Fantastic, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. He has been with the camp since its inception, master minding the recreational programming for the varied camp sessions ranging from one-week sessions for children with cancer and one-week sessions for siblings of children with cancer to weekend camps for friends of children with cancer and young adult camps, serving young adults eighteen or older, who have completed cancer treatment or are currently undergoing treatment.

"A challenge as Camp Fantastic began was convincing the parents that the camp was a safe place to go. It was easier to convince the child, but often the parents believed their children were too frail. They were very protective. We succeeded in educating the parents and children that camp is fun, and they could participate safely," says Butler.

Butler is now ending his third year on the American Camp Association (ACA) National Board and serves as conflict resolution chairperson and vice president of ACA, Chesapeake. He remains very active as director of recreation for Camp Fantastic.

Dawn Ewing
Executive Director, Morry's Camp, White Plains, New York

We always think it's the big stuff that makes an impact, but at the end of the day, it's the little things that were important.

A career at camp caught Dawn Ewing by surprise during her freshman year in college. A call from a friend whose sister directed a 4-H camp and was in need of a camp counselor was the first step in a lifelong career working with children in the camp setting. Ewing went to the interview, accepted the offer, and was hooked. She served as a counselor, outdoor program director, and CIT director of the camp before leaving to take a park ranger position in Coral Springs, Florida, for a year. But the camp calling never waned. Ewing applied at Camp Echo Lake, located in the Adirondacks. She received a call from Morry Stein, director of the camp, and the rest is history . . . within four days with a loaded Honda Civic packed with belongings, Ewing was on the road to New York and the mountain air of the Adirondacks and Camp Echo Lake. "I think I didn't know I was going to grow up and work in the camp field. My family inspired me to give back so I had that idea ingrained in me from my childhood. I came from a family who gave of themselves and understood that being part of the world was a privilege," says Ewing.

"I ended up spending the next ten years at Camp Echo Lake as the associate director. I had the fortune of being around passionate people, who challenged themselves, and mentors whose values were my values. They believed in the value of good people. It was a rich environment, and I was asked to contribute in a wonderful, intense way," explains Ewing. "I was wrapped around other professionals who believed in the magic of the camp experience as a place to grow and be challenged."

Morry Stein's dream was to make the camp experience available to all children. During the week following the departure of Camp Echo Lake's traditional campers, inner-city children were invited to come to camp. "The very first summer I volunteered for this program, I was captured by the ability to give back in a different way to a population of children that did not have consistency in their young lives."

Morry Stein passed away suddenly and tragically in the fall of 1994. His passing left a footprint in the camp industry according to Ewing. "He was a role model. Someone who pushed you so hard but with the idea that he believed you could do it. He gave people opportunities and believed in them. Belief is a powerful thing. His dream was to build a camp program that would be available to all children."

Morry's dream came true with the opening of Morry's Camp in the summer of 1996. Ewing joined as co-executive director in the fall of 1997 and became the executive director in the winter of 2000. Morry's Camp is now entering its twelfth summer. "We are impacting this wonderful group of at-risk children in a whole new way. We have an opportunity to help these kids become their best selves. I am overwhelmed when I see how camp is working, how the kids are contributing to their communities, and then I realize the kids are doing the work. We aren't just entertaining the kids; they are learning."

Ewing extended her dedication to the camp experience by serving as vice president of the American Camp Association National Board from 2004 to 2007. Camp, says Ewing, enables you to see the cause and effect of what happens when you take care of people. "It's a place where people believe in you, challenge you, and catch you."

Phil Lilienthal
Chief Executive Officer, Global Camps Africa

I keep discovering the incredible power of camp. We can change horrible situations around the world with camp as the vehicle.

You could say Phil Lilienthal took the road less traveled, and it has made all the difference . . . . As a young college student, Lilienthal was the head of a major fund-raising event for students at his college. That fateful evening he was responsible for hosting the guest speaker, who happened to be James Robinson from Operation Crossroads Africa. "He was the most compelling, spellbinding speaker I have ever heard," states Lilienthal. "He was mesmerizing as he explained the broadly cultural experience of working in Africa among the people there."

Inspired by Robinson and the notion of working and living in a less-developed country, he joined the Peace Corps in 1965 after law school and traveled with his wife to Ethiopia. He as a lawyer and his wife as a social worker, they made residence in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia as Peace Corps volunteers. Growing up with a camp heritage at Camp Winnebago in Fayette, Maine, where his father was camp owner, Lilienthal came to Ethiopia with an instinctual knowledge of camp life, which proved unwittingly to be advantageous for the new challenge that lay ahead.

At the time, the emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie's granddaughter, a highly educated woman, requested a summer camp be formed for the children in the area. Lilienthal was the best fit with his extensive camp background. As a result, the first children's camp in Ethiopia, Camp Langano, was formed in July 1966 under Lilienthal's guidance. He ran the camp for two years; the first year the camp served 60 children and 225 children were served the second year. Lilienthal then sought the well-known YMCA organization to run the camp and maintain its organizational stability. He trained an Ethiopian YMCA staff person to take over the camp when he departed. The camp ran successfully for seven years until the emperor was deposed by a harsh dictatorship, which closed the camp.

Lilienthal continued his service in the Peace Corps in Washington D.C., the Philippines, and Thailand, and then home again to take ownership of the family-owned Camp Winnebago from his father from 1974 to 2003. Handing the camp ownership to his son, Andy, in 2003, he decided to "throw his hat over the wall" as Lilienthal aptly describes: "If you throw your hat over the wall, you have to climb over the wall and get it. I had to start doing something about my camp idea. The first hat I threw over meant that I started telling people about starting the camp. The next hat was in May of 2003; I focused on finding an organizational partner and the rest carried itself. I went to Kenya, Botswana, and South Africa. I sent e-mails and inquiries. I found South Africa to be the most willing and able to move the camp forward."

And so was born Camp Sizanani, which is a Zulu word for "help each other." The camp stems from the U.S.-based, nonprofit corporation Global Camps Africa founded by Lilienthal. The corporation's goal is to provide a camp experience for children affected by HIV/AIDS in developing countries. According to Global Camps Africa's (WorldCamps) Web site, Camp Sizanani offers six camp sessions every year for a minimum of ten days each. Boys' and girls' camps alternate, bringing together 110 children each time. The children's ages range from ten to fifteen years old. Global Camps Africa has opened two more camps in March, Camp God's Golden Acre in the province of KwaZulu Natal, which has the heaviest HIV infection rate, and another camp for children from Limpopo Province.

"Winnebago offered a great camp experience every summer, but this is a step beyond. I didn't feel like I was saving people's lives there. In South Africa, we are the only game in town. There are no kids in our group deciding what camp to go to. They are on the street or at camp. It's only ten days. But, you feel that you are, perhaps, doing something for these kids that they could never have on their own," says Lilienthal. "It is a thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we have a new group each time. It is highly emotional at least six times every year when camp is in session."

Lou L Tate
President of Tate School of Discovery and Owner of Tate Day Camp in Knoxville, Tennessee

We had a camper who refused to speak at school or anywhere outside the home. The first summer she came to camp, she started to speak. Camp and the wonderful people you find there can enrich your life.

In 1968, Lou L Tate began pondering. As an elementary and kindergarten teacher with two little girls at home, she was in a quandary. She needed to find a quality place for them while she was teaching—but where? Leaders are often born from taking positive action, and so with big dreams and a determined heart, Tate decided to start her own school. The Tate School of Discovery began as kindergarten classes held in three rooms in Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Tate was a member. "We built an educational wing at the church, but I didn't have much money. I bought school furniture on credit . . . I remember the man I purchased the furniture from telling me ‘you look honest' and without further discussion let me purchase the furniture on terms. In exchange for providing the furniture, the church let me rent the rooms for free. My family and I drove around in our station wagon, putting out flyers about our new school. We started the year with a full house," says Tate.

Tate built the school on several long-standing principles: to create a school where children were not only encouraged to learn, but also to develop a sense of responsibility, self-motivation, and compassion. The school became known in the area for its high academic standards, traditional values, and low teacher-pupil ratio. The small school outgrew its original three rooms and relocated on a scenic fifty-acre farm nestled among unspoiled wooded areas. Currently, the school caters to 200 students from preschool to the fifth grade.

The expansive farm location of the school created the perfect setting for a camp. The inspiration for the camp came fifteen years later after the establishment of the school. Those same tenets of building the values of responsibility, self-motivation, and compassion among children spilled over into the creation of Tate's Day Camp. "Someone came to me with the idea of starting a small summer camp on the property. I agreed and began to watch the program. I decided the quality of the program could be greatly improved. I wanted to run the camp myself. My biggest help in growing and improving the camp was the American Camp Association (ACA) conference in Nashville. I met wonderful people and learned so much," states Tate. "I was so inspired I decided to serve on the ACA, Heart of the South board."

Many of the children who are students at the school attend the day camp in the summer. According to Tate, children come from all over the area of Knoxville and beyond. The camp offers week-long day camp sessions for ten weeks during the summer. "We encourage everyone to come to two consecutive sessions to take full advantage of the programs. The campers come back year after year, as campers, as CITs, and then they are off to college and come back to be our counselors."

Camp is all about people coming together, says Tate. "You can have the most beautiful campus, equipment, etc., but it comes down to the counselors, director, office staff, and campers. It's about relationships and wonderful people coming together."

Timothy Wilson
Senior Advisor, Director Emeritus of International Camp, and Director Emeritus of Center for Coexistence, Seeds of Peace, Otisfield, Maine

At camp, kids, adults, and camp staff become a community of people with different religions and ethnicities and they learn to work together.

Dr. Joel Bloom, director of Camp Powhatan, a boys camp in Otisfield, Maine, saw great potential in the young, twenty-year-old Timothy Wilson, who came to camp to apply for a counselor position at his Jewish camp in 1960. "I'm a black American," says Wilson, "and to be a counselor at a Jewish camp was a little unheard of back then. But challenging convention was part of who Joel was. He encouraged me to get to know the camp's head counselor, Lou Grummond, who had run the camp from the 20s through the 60s. Both of these gentlemen were great role models for me as a young man. I remember sitting on the porch in 1962 with Joel and Lou. I was at a crossroads, and we talked about why camping was so important to a young man. I soaked up the philosophy of Joel and Lou, which has been a part of my life and which I have shared with my campers and counselors."

From 1962 to 1965, Wilson joined the Peace Corps in Thailand. By 1966, Wilson was married and heading back to Maine to teach history and coach football and wrestling at a local high school. In the summers, he returned to Camp Powhatan to run the boating and waterfront programs and to eventually take over the head counselor position from 1968 to 1973. "A myriad of people inspired me to enter the camp field. I enjoy young people so it was a natural extension to my career, and I started camping when I was six years old, attending the original James Welden Johnson Camps in West Virginia in 1957 as a sixteen-year-old counselor. I was big. They thought I was a college student," Wilson remembers.

Wilson also recalls attending one of the first integrated counselor trainings for all camps in the area at Prince George's Forest in Virginia in 1956. Both white and black counselors convened for training. "We worked together, and we forgot who we were at the time."

After leaving Camp Powhatan, Wilson had a distinguished career with appointments by three Maine governors, holding posts as the chair of the Maine Human Rights Commission, state ombudsman, and associate commissioner of programming for the Department of Mental Health, Retardation, and Corrections, as well as director of the State Offices of Community Services Civil Emergency Preparedness, and Energy. Camp remained a large part of the heart of Wilson's career.

And twenty years later, in 1993, his camp career came full circle back to the Maine countryside and back to Camp Powhatan, where the camp was extending its camp sessions to accommodate a new camp program, Seeds of Peace. Robert Toll, a former Powhatan camper and a board member of Seeds of Peace, purchased the camp grounds in 1994 and leased it to Seeds of Peace International in 1997 where Wilson would have a distinctive presence as director of the International Camp and of the Seeds of Peace Center for Coexistence in Jerusalem until retiring in 2006.

From serving forty-six Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian teenagers in 1993 to a leadership network of 3,000 young people from several conflict regions, Seeds of Peace continues to thrive in its dedication to empowering young leaders.

"For me, Seeds of Peace is special because the support staff come from the neighborhood. The kitchen staff are students from the local high school. It is a camp that supports the surrounding community and the community supports the camp," says Wilson. "When delegation leaders visit, they meet the local people and get a sense of the best of the U.S. Not just the kids but the adults as well have an opportunity to feel like an integral part of the camp and town community."

Teresa Nicodemus is currently the managing editor for Camping Magazine.

Originally published in the 2007 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.