The Camp Community's Response to September 11: What We Did, Why We Did It, and What It Means
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Within two weeks following September 11, 2001, the American Camping Association (ACA) formally responded to the horrors of that day through Project Heal the Children, developed by the American Camping Association New York Section. ACA-accredited camps, from across the nation, donated spaces in day camps and overnight camps for all of the children who lost a parent on September 11. These are lifetime camperships, permitting the children to attend camp, free of charge, for as many years as they wish to attend. The ACA New York Section created a committee of its Board of Directors to oversee the administration of Heal the Children.
Two-hundred and fifteen camps from nineteen states responded to our request for camperships, accounting for eight-hundred lifetime camperships! Although the great majority of participating camps are in the northeast, it was gratifying to see camps throughout the country respond so generously.
The only eligibility criteria for the program is that a child lost a parent on September 11 - there is no means test associated with the program. Families fill out a simple, one-page application, indicating those things many parents want to consider in choosing a camp for their child. The family submits the application, a copy of the child's birth certificate, and a copy of the deceased parent's death certificate to the New York Section office for processing and matching the child with an appropriate camp. The Public Guidance Service at the New York Section, which typically helps inquiring families identify an appropriate camp for their child, uses the information provided by the family to determine an appropriate match. The family is given several alternatives, and the selected camps are asked to provide the family with promotional materials. Once the family selects what it believes is the best camp for their child, the registration process is similar to that of any other camper. Following the summer, registration for subsequent years at the camp is also handled similarly to how it is handled for all campers. As the child gets older and, perhaps, wishes to change camps (e.g., move from day camp to overnight camp), the program facilitates this process, and the camper continues to attend camp free-of-charge.
Getting the Word Out
In December 2001, Senator Charles Schumer of New York assisted the ACA in launching Project Heal the Children. In a news conference held in Manhattan, Senator Schumer stated, "Many people and many organizations have done many wonderful things in the aftermath of September 11, but this is as generous and thoughtful as anything I've seen. Summer camp is a special but rare treat and there's no better medicine for the children who lost a parent on September 11."
The New York Section contacted the companies directly affected by the tragedy, including those in the World Trade Centers, Pentagon, the New York City Police and Fire Departments, and the airlines. Many companies posted information about Heal the Children on the Web sites they had established for the victims' families. Additionally, a Web site was created to provide families with information about the program.
In 2002, over 125 children attended camp through Project Heal the Children. Many of these camperships were provided through the mechanism noted above; others were provided directly by the participating camps to families with whom they already had a relationship. Many of the affected children were already campers in ACA-accredited camps and many of these camps offered camperships directly to the children.
Although the estimates of how many children actually lost a parent on that day changed frequently during the months that followed September 11, the current estimate is that 3000 children are left with one parent. When Project Heal the Children was conceived and created, the ACA was unsure whether the eight-hundred spaces would be sufficient to meet the anticipated demand of the eligible families. As the months went by, it became clear that most families were not ready to send their child to overnight camp. However, there was significant interest in the day camps in the suburbs of New York City. Of the 125 camperships provided in 2002, over one hundred were provided by the day camps.
Following the summer, the New York Section reached out to some of the families that were provided Heal the Children camperships. With no exceptions, families were grateful for the opportunity to send their children to camp and gave high praise to the experiences their children had at camp.
"My daughter had a wonderful experience at camp. The director and staff were wonderful. She had a wonderful learning experience."
"My son went to camp and loved it!! He can't wait for next summer."
"I was particularly thankful that my son was among children who didn't experience the tragedy directly; he had so much counseling throughout the year that he was ready to get involved in a normal camp experience."
The American Camping Association expects Project Heal the Children to exist for a total of seventeen years, when the youngest children who lost a parent on September 11 will "age-out" of camp. Until then, it is anticipated that more families will avail themselves of the opportunity to send their children to camp. It seems that it has never been more important than now to provide kids with "a world of good." The fact remains that camp is a safe and nurturing environment.
For more information about Project Heal the Children, including a list of participating camps, please visit the Web site www.HealTheChildren.org .
David Silverstein, American Camping Association New York Section board president and director of Summer Trails Day Camp
Jay Jacobs, chair, Project Heal the Children and executive director of Timber Lake Camp, Timberlake West, Tyler Hill Camp, and North Shore Day Camp
Brian Scholl, executive director of the American Camping Association New York Section
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Originally published in the 2003 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.