20/20 Toolbox: Focus For a Future — A Win/Win Organization

Jack and Paula Kaminer

A Humble Beginning

Camp owners are thrilled, educators are motivated, and economically disadvantaged children are positively changed forever. Focus For a Future began with a very simple concept that proved beneficial to everyone involved.

It all started in 2003 with one empty bed at Camp Lenox in Otis, Massachusetts. Jack, the camp’s basketball director, approached owners Monte Moss and Rich and Stephanie Moss with his idea to offer a free scholarship to a deserving child from a financially struggling family, and they generously agreed. With that one child, who continued as a scholarship camper and went on to become a counselor at Lenox, Focus For a Future was created. From that simple beginning, Focus For a Future has grown to include eighty-two camps that provided scholarships for 243 campers this past summer, valuing a total of $1,653,925. The value of all the tuition scholarships received since its inception has now reached a total of $5,639,540.

The Board

In the fall of 2003, Focus For a Future became a nonprofit organization. One of Jack’s first tasks was to create the board of directors. He gathered together a board that consisted primarily of his former Scarsdale High School basketball players who were now successful businessmen. Today the board is made up of seven former players, three parents of former players, and three Scarsdale residents. They were selected for their passion for helping less advantaged children and for their personal understanding of the life lessons learned in a camp community. Those board members who can support Focus For a Future financially do so generously. Additional fundraising is done through yearly mailings to people who know Jack and believe in the work he is doing. These donations allow scholarship campers to feel comfortable at camp by supplying them with the items they need. If a camper requires supplies or equipment for camp — before or after camp has started — the board allows for the purchasing of those items. The goal is to make the campers feel that they are no different from any other camper.

The Selection Process

From the beginning, Jack’s hope for Focus For a Future was to replicate the model that he initiated at Camp Lenox by calling camp owners and asking them to donate a scholarship for an underserved child. To ensure the program’s success, Jack called upon his twenty-three years of experience as a former teacher and coach in Westchester County, New York, and asked educators he knew to help identify a very special child in their school to fill open camp spaces.

The success of the program — for both the camp and the campers — was clearly going to be determined by the children that were chosen. Therefore, Jack and his wife, Paula, developed a set of criteria that would help the educators select those children who were truly ready to benefit from a camp experience. This process eased the minds of those first, remarkable camp owners who agreed to donate open camp spots. These criteria are still in place today.

Educators always make their decisions for camper scholarship recipients based on the following:

  • The child has excellent behavior, makes a good effort in the classroom, and demonstrates the ability to get along with children and adults from all backgrounds.
  • The educators themselves would be happy to have the child as a guest in their own home, with their own children, for a weekend visit.
  • The parents’ combined income does not exceed $55,000 a year. (This rule is flexible when involving larger families or single parents.)

How the Program Grew

By 2005, with the selection process in place, Jack was able to convince two other camps to join the program, Rich Gersten at Brant Lake and Ken and Rick Etra at Camp Pontiac. This would be the first time that Jack was not at the same camp as the scholarship campers. There were a total of seven campers at these three camps, and he was feeling like a nervous parent sending his own children to camp for the first time.
 

Camper Success

The first phone call Jack made to find out how the campers were adjusting is unforgettable. “Henry” was the name of the child placed at Camp Pontiac. Jack made the call and asked, for the first time but certainly not the last, “How is my camper doing?” When the phone call ended, his joy and relief was clear. Director Mark Sklar had said, “We love Henry!”

This is the type of response that Focus For a Future continues to hear every year from many different camp owners and directors . . . but the first time will never be forgotten. Henry went on to spend five summers at Pontiac. Brant Lake’s first scholarship camper is presently, according to Rich Gersten, one of the children’s favorite counselors.

 

By the summer of 2009, Focus For a Future grew to include twenty-nine camps serving a total of seventy campers. This was largely because of word-of-mouth support for the program from people such as Dan Zenkel (founder and former CEO of CampGroup and one of the founders of America’s Camp) and Mark Benerofe (current president of CampGroup Family of Camps), who believed in Focus For a Future from the start. Their support and counsel helped Dan’s early prediction come true, “Focus For a Future has the ability to grow exponentially.”

In April of 2010, Focus For a Future received recognition at an ACA, New York and New Jersey board meeting. In response, the board sent out a communication about the program titled “Great Kids for Empty Beds” to all ACA, New York and New Jersey members. By the next summer, the number of camps involved jumped to forty-five with 111 scholarship campers served.

Another factor that has increased the camp community’s awareness and participation in Focus For a Future is receiving the Ben Applebaum Advocate for Youth Award presented at SCOPE’s annual fundraising dinner in 2012.

SCOPE is an organization formed by ACA, New York and New Jersey to provide children in need the ability to attend nonprofit summer camps. Since 1992, more than 20,000 children have attended these camps through SCOPE’s funding. The Ben Applebaum Advocate for Youth Award is presented at SCOPE’s annual fundraising dinner. Some former recipients have included Christopher Reeve, Senator Charles Schumer, and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The Educators

To date there have been approximately seventy educators (teachers, social workers, administrators, coaches) who have been part of our program. They base their decisions not only on the selection criteria, but also on long-term relationships with and observations of the candidates they choose.

The educators on the team take many hours of their own time to communicate with the families, the camp owners, and Jack. They fill out camp forms; shop or purchase gift cards for sneakers, clothing, and/or equipment for the campers; and sometimes visit their students at camp. All of their work is voluntary and often in¬volves multiple children at a time. Without them, Focus For a Future could not operate.

Keeping Camp Owners and Educators Engaged

Clearly, the amazing kindness and generosity of the camp owners and volunteer educators has helped Focus For a Future achieve its goals. Camp owners warmly accept the children and are committed to making each summer (most often many summers) memorable for them. Although they participate in Focus For a Future out of the kindness of their hearts and would probably do so without any recognition at all, the organization does everything it can to show its appreciation and build toward continued success and collaboration.

The “Thank You” Dinner

After each season, the board members host a “Thank You” dinner for the camp owners and directors, educators, and donors who are instrumental in the program. A few scholarship campers and their parents are also invited. Several of the campers prepare something to say about their camp experience and are invariably the highlight of the evening. Also, a video is shown featuring scholarship campers and camp owners talking about the summer from their personal perspectives.

During the dinner and throughout the video, it becomes clear that camp owners and directors are impressed not just with the fact that the scholarship campers benefit from the experience, but that the entire camp community benefits from the diversity as well. These children arrive with no expectations and approach the summer with awe and appreciation. Their enthusiasm is contagious. It is truly a win-win situation. When camp owners and directors reinforce that in their own words, it encourages others to engage in the program.

No doubt the true testament of how camp owners feel about the program is demonstrated by the fact that, although a child may have been accepted to fill an empty bed, the vast majority of them have been invited back on a full scholarship for as long as they want to continue.

The Future

At this time, Focus For a Future children are provided scholarships at camps in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Maine, New Hampshire, Florida, Minnesota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Our operating expenses for 2012 were $81,963.

Jack maintains that if there is one bed available, Focus For a Future wants to be able to fill it. This philosophy has often taken the placement process into the middle of June when last-minute offers are made by camp owners. In turn, rushed phone calls are made to the educators who always draw from their “waiting lists” to find the right match.

Focus For a Future hopes to continue to serve these less advantaged children who can only benefit from the opportunity of summer camp and who, in turn, enrich the camp experience for everyone.

If you are interested in joining the Focus For a Future team or in making a donation, please visit focusforafuture.org.

Jack and Paula Kaminer are both retired educators and have been married for forty-four years. Jack taught for thirty-six years in New York City and Scarsdale, New York. He has held many camp positions from dishwasher to basketball director. He coached basketball for thirty-two years and is in the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame. Paula and Jack have two married daughters and four grandchildren.

Originally published in the 2013 November/December Camping Magazine.
 

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