Hartford Courant, The (CT)
July 12, 2002
A DREAM QUIETLY REALIZED
GENERATIONS OF VOLUNTEERS AT A REGIONAL SUMMER CAMP
Author: AMY ASH NIXON; Courant Staff Writer
For years, area teens have spent their summer vacations on a quiet, wildflower-covered hillside in front of Powder Ridge ski resort.
At the John J. Nerden Regional Training Center's camp, the youngsters are building memories for themselves and for the dozens of children and adults with mental retardation who they help supervise.
The late John Nerden was a Meriden businessman involved in the city's civic-minded Probus Club. At his urging and lead, the club sought a donation of land back in the 1960s to launch such a summer camp.
The Zemel family, which owned Powder Ridge for many years, contributed 15 acres at the front of their resort to make Nerden's camp dream come true.
A $3,000 grant from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation helped establish the camp in 1965. All these years later, that original vision plays out every summer day, offering valuable friendship time for campers, inspiration for future careers for the staff and volunteers, and creating a place where the goodness of others is involved in everything that happens.
Dozens of middle- and high school volunteers fuel the camp's work, where each day about 75 campers ranging in age from preschool to near senior citizen status arrive at 9 a.m. and spend six hours swimming, taking part in music, arts and crafts and games on the lawn.
Alison Adams, who will be a freshman at Coginchaug Regional High School in Durham, heard about the camp through a friend of her mom's, and is volunteering this summer. She's never done anything like this, she said, sitting with a few campers who were vying for her attention. ``It's nice. I like helping the kids,'' she said.
The camp also features about 10 paid staff members, including Director Jennifer Straub, a special education teacher from Meriden named the city's educator of the year last year.
Campers are broken into groups by age and gender while they make their way through the day's structured activities.
Nerden's idea of a community outpouring to keep the camp rolling still lives on, Straub says.
``He got people to chip in, build the buildings and then keep it going,'' she says. ``That's the spirit of this place -- it's community supported.''
A volunteer board of directors headed by Joe Fuda oversees the camp's operations.
One of the special end-of-summer features is an awards assembly complete with medals and trophies for campers. All of these traditions of donations and volunteerism go back years, to the camp's founding.
One of Nerden's children, Laurie Russell, also a special education teacher in Meriden, was one of the camp's past directors, Straub said. John Nerden, who died a few years ago, used to ``sit upon the bench on the hill and just watch the campers, smiling,'' Straub recalled, her eyes glistening with tears for a moment.
Staff member Madeline Hendricks, a teacher's assistant at a Meriden middle school, has been working at the camp for eight years. Both her children, now young adults, volunteered for years. Her daughter, Kelly, is entering her second year of college at St. Joseph's in West Hartford and is studying special education.
Straub began at the camp as a student volunteer when she was 11 years old. Inside one of the buildings, Sheila Kleist, 24, a special education teacher in Berlin, runs a music group. She began volunteering at camp when she was 12, and her sister, Deirdre, now 12, is volunteering this summer. Their aunt was one of the camp's past directors.
``It's just amazing how powerful it is,'' Straub says. ``Every year, people will say, `You're the best-kept secret,' and we're not trying to be a secret, but people don't always know we are here.''
There are 125 adults and children registered at camp, but on any given day about 75 campers will attend. Most use public transportation such as buses offered from the Meriden-Wallingford area. Others come in vans and cars arranged through agencies such as the American Red Cross. Many of the campers come from private homes, with some attending from group homes or foster care situations through the state Department of Mental Retardation, Straub said.
Every day, there are special activities, such as a cookout or a theme, and there are special after-camp activities some evenings. There's an overnight once a summer that's a big hit, and each day features a ``camper of the day'' recognition. The morning begins with staff and campers clustered around a flagpole, saying the Pledge of Allegiance, singing a patriotic song and going through the day's calendar together. Routines are important for the campers, and so is the morning's humor.
One morning this week, Straub announced that the day's cookout would feature hot dogs, hamburgers and turtle soup, the last menu choice, a joke, causing an eruption of happy laughter to start the day off.
The camper of the day was 11-year-old Priscilla Medina from Meriden, who has come to the camp since she was 4 years old. ``I feel happy and excited,'' she said about her special status that day, a reward for good behavior and showing kindness and cooperation to others in her group.
Kathi Kirschner, whose son Jake, 18, has come to camp for nearly 10 years, said the college students and other volunteers Jake has met write to him during the school year and have made meaningful friendships with her son that they honor year-round.
``These kids have been here forever. They are just amazing -- the best,'' she said.
Staff and volunteers say they feel the same way about the camp.
``I think it's the feeling that you're making a difference every day,'' said Straub. ``We always hear we should be nice to others and give back to our community, but being here is doing that, and seeing the goodness of so many people here every day is incredible. I feel such pride in our volunteers. The commitment they make, it's just amazing.''
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