Thursday, August 02, 2007

Camp for visually impaired children

Ask Lauren Brierly and Jen Evans to talk about Camp Marcella, a state-run summer camp for the visually impaired in Rockaway Township, and watch the enthusiasm just bubble forth.
"Camp is where I lost my shyness," said Evans, 19.

Both South Jersey teens are now counselors at Marcella, but were campers for years before that.
Here, they said, you were surrounded by people with challenges similar to your own. Here there were people your own age, they said, unlike the elderly patients they would encounter at their eye doctors' offices. Here, no one pities you.

"They're actually, like, understanding," Evans said.

"Not to mention it's also a blast," interjected Brierly, also 19.

For 60 years, Camp Marcella has been turning out happy campers from across the state with its free program for clients of the state Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The camp is a partnership between the commission and the New Jersey Camp for Blind Children, a nonprofit group that owns and maintains the grounds.

"We've been able to provide children who are blind and visually impaired a camping experience, but more important than that, what we've been able to do is provide them an opportunity to see other blind children," said Vito DeSantis, the commission's executive director.

Camp Marcella was born in 1947 when a Passaic mother decided she wanted a proper camping facility for her visually impaired son, said Carl Sokoll of Oradell, who wrote a history of the nonprofit group and the camp 10 years ago.

The mother, Florence Greenberg, and her attorney, Walter Margetts -- whose son Thomas is still on the group's board -- started raising money. They found a plot of land that was built originally as a vacation area, Sokoll said.

In that first season, some 1,300 organizations contributed to the group. "It was a tremendous response," Sokoll said.

In later years, local Lions Clubs became major funders for the camp, he said, continuously contributing two-thirds of the costs of operations.

The arrangement between the state and the New Jersey Camp for Blind Children has been in place since 1955, with the state paying $1 a year in rent. That lease expired in December, and the two sides are now negotiating a new lease.

This time around, the nonprofit is asking for more rent. Their initial suggestion, said board Vice President Robert Treptow, is for the state to pay $5,000 a month. That would cover about half of the group's annual costs, he said.

The extra money is needed because donations have begun to decline.

"Everybody is watching their pennies now," he said. Costs have increased as the camp has grown from one main building to 23 buildings on 200 acres, with a 7.5-acre lake. Just last year, the group put in a brand new pool, and items like paging systems and updated alarm systems come with a high price tag.

"We put an awful lot of money into that camp every year, and the demands of the state are getting more and more," Treptow said.

The two sides met last week to negotiate, and both sides said the meeting was positive. A spokeswoman for the Division of Health and Human Services described the sitdown as "congenial," but declined to be more specific.

DeSantis declined to comment specifically on negotiations, saying only: "I'm personally dedicated to the notion that this camping experience ... is something we need to do."

He noted that the state has steadily been improving the program through the years. In the last five years, he said, the state's budget for running the camp program -- eight weeks, plus a one-week orientation session for counselors -- has gone from $275,000 to nearly $500,000, he said.

In addition to traditional counselors, the camp has full-time staff on site, and the program has gone from just traditional camping to incorporating skills like cane travel, assisted technology and Braille, DeSantis said.

The camp has also been working toward meeting the accreditation standards of the American Camp Association, which has a set of national standards designed to improve camp facilities and their staffs. "We've been able to elevate (the camp) through additional resources and programs," DeSantis said.

The state's eight weeks is divided into three two-week sessions for the blind and visually impaired between the ages of 5 and 16, and then two one-week sessions for visually impaired children who have other disabilities.

A regular day at camp goes something like this: Campers wake up at 7:15 a.m. as a camp "morning show" featuring weather and music plays over the public address system. At 7:45, they raise the flag then go to breakfast. After that they go back to their cabin for cleanup, which they are scored on every day.

Then there are all kinds of activities, including swimming, boating, fishing, arts and crafts, physical education, music and nature. Every group gets a chance to go "camping" in tents and have cookouts over the campfire. The older kids even have "proms," said camp Director Sarah Wolff.
The main thing for the campers, she said, is the camaraderie. "For once in their life, they're not alone," she said. "They form friendships. It's wonderful to watch and see."

Paula Saha may be reached at or (973) 539-7910.


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