The Camp Community's Response to September 11: What We Did, Why We Did It, and What It Means
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In the aftermath of September 11, Americans felt a profound desire to aid the victims. We gave blood. We wrote checks. We donated to help rescue efforts. And it still didn't feel like enough. CampGroup, which owns eight camps in the northeast and midwest, decided to help by doing what we do best - providing an outstanding summer camp experience for the children who had lost a parent on September 11. CampGroup established America's Camp, a one-week resident camp to be situated on the grounds of Camp Mah-Kee-Nac in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
The first crucial task was to attract campers. To do so, we approached the Twin Towers Fund, the organization started by Rudolph Giuliani in the aftermath of September 11 to support the families of fallen police officers, firefighters, and Port Authority workers. Larry Levy, president of the Twin Towers Fund, and a former camper himself, recognized the benefits of camp for every child, and the Twin Towers Fund signed on as a sponsor. The Fund agreed to invite its children to the camp. Soon after, the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union agreed to contact its victim families, and several companies affected by the tragedy contacted theirs. Senator Ted Kennedy and Boston Mayor Tom Menino contacted families in the Boston area.
On Sunday, August 18, seventy-eight children boarded two buses at Shea Stadium for a week they would never forget. Some, anxious about leaving home and family for the first time since September 11, struggled to board the bus. Others hopped on cheerfully. Camp was underway!
The camp was action-packed. From the Polar Bear Swim at 7:15 a.m. to archery, water skiing, and a myriad of sports activities, the campers experienced everything that camp offers. The program was almost entirely elective, with campers free to participate in a wide variety of activities. Special events highlighted every day. One afternoon, the main ball field was transformed into a carnival with rides, booths, and cotton candy. Verne Troyer, "Mini Me" of the Austin Powers movies, and Phil Fondacaro of Willow flew in to spend time with the campers. Jason and Jared Collins of the NBA's Utah Jazz and New Jersey Nets and Tiny Archibald held basketball clinics for the children. The campers took part in an all-day Patriot Games. There were trips to a local Alpine Slide and an MTV night.
America's Camp was not a grief camp. It was first and foremost about fun. The spirit and enthusiasm were remarkable and infectious. Music and dancing punctuated every meal - with campers and staff dancing on their chairs to the tunes of songs like "Reach for the Stars" and "Build Me Up, Buttercup." Cabin groups cheered constantly, generating excitement wherever they went. During one unforgettable night in the local ballpark, America's Camp kids led the entire stadium in cheers of "Go Black Bears, Go!"
For one week, no one was labeled a "9-11 kid" or was looked at differently - because each child shared a common tragedy. Campers were surrounded by trained, loving adults who helped them enjoy just being kids . . . kids who ran and played and smiled and laughed all day long.
Grief and Healing
With so many children, all touched by the same tragedy, grief and healing were inevitably part of America's Camp. To assist in understanding and handling these issues, Camp Danbee's Jay Toporoff, a director of America's Camp, enlisted the Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Maine. The Center sent twenty-five volunteer "buddies." Two buddies were assigned to each of the ten cabins, providing ongoing support for anyone in need. A camp building was converted into "Buddy Central," a quiet place to work on memory crafts, do quiet reading, or just talk. Downstairs, a "Volcano Room" was outfitted with foam toys and padding, so children could work out any anger they were feeling. Before bed each night, the cabin buddies directed "sharing time" - a time when campers and cabin staff could share as much as they wished.
Reflecting on the week, Linda Kelly, who coordinated the buddies, said, "During the week, I experienced some of the richest, deepest sharing that I have ever witnessed. It's because the kids felt loved and safe. They were all there because of the same event."
America's Camp was staffed with an extraordinary group of staff members drawn from CampGroup's resident camps - Danbee, Mah-Kee-Nac, Walt Whitman, Wicosuta, Winaukee, and Winadu. The eighty volunteer staff were talented, compassionate, and full of energy. Each staff member gave up a day off during the regular camp season to attend a one-day training session. As soon as the traditional eight weeks of camp had ended, the staff headed straight to America's Camp for another thirty-six hour orientation. Bob Ditter, noted camp consultant, was at America's Camp to support the staff and the campers - "debriefing" cabin counselors each night to identify camper and staff issues. The impact of Bob's support of both children and staff was immeasurable.
At a special campfire ceremony on the first night, Jed Dorfman, assistant director at Walt Whitman and an America's Camp director, set the tone for the staff: "We all come from different camps and cultures, but starting right now we're one staff - the America's Camp staff." Staff shirts were handed out and were worn proudly for the rest of the week. For an entire week, not a complaint was heard. Rather, there were only thanks.
In a post-camp note to the directors, one staff member expressed the sentiments of many. "Thank you for letting me be a part. I can't remember a time when I have ever been as moved as I was by those children and at the same time, felt so satisfied that I was making a difference in a child's life. You have done a wonderful thing for the families of 9-11 and for me, as well. It was amazing to see so many people from the different camps come together so quickly - as if we all had been one staff all summer - and to see all of these kids bond so quickly not only with the staff, but with each other."
A New Beginning
As the week drew to a close, the camp assembled for a final campfire. Many campers spoke. Several said they hoped that when they returned home, they would find the kind of support that they had experienced at camp. Each child received a small bag containing four stones and the following inscription: "These stones were chosen just for you and have special meaning. The smooth stones are like the bright and shiny parts of you, the parts that have healed and grown, and are stronger than before. The rough stone is like that corner of your heart that may always feel a little rough and painful because of what's happened to you. But because of what's happened to you, may you always be stronger, more gentle, and more tender with all the people in your life."
The buses returned to Shea Stadium the following morning, and campers and staff exchanged tearful good-byes. One mother summed up the feelings of the families who had come to pick up their children. "My son hadn't smiled in nine months," she said, "but I've been looking at the pictures on your Web site all week, and he hasn't stopped laughing and dancing!"
In the days and weeks following, many were left to reflect on the meaning of this extraordinary week. Chris Raymond, who coordinated dozens of volunteers from the local community, summed up her experience: "None of us will ever be able to eradicate the image of the airplanes smashing into the Twin Towers, but I shall be able to move that image aside and replace it with the smiles on the kids when they had their nails done, their hair styled, climbing on the sculptures at the Rockwell Museum - when they hip-hopped across the floor, ran around the bases during softball games, came back up the steps from water skiing, and displayed their woodworking boxes. All wonderful, beautiful smiles."
Larry Levy, president of the Twin Towers Fund, shared these words about the camp with the families supported by the fund. "Maybe it wasn't a miracle, but it was the best playground on earth. Every child asked us to have a camp next year and to have reunions during the year. Every child felt better after camp than before it. Every child deserves to have a childhood, and we will do everything we can to keep America's Camp going for them."
Irwin Grossman, director, Camp Mah-Kee-Nac
Daniel Zenkel, president and CEO, CampGroup LLC
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Originally published in the 2003 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.