Giving Back

Special Summer Camp in North Salem Transforms Lives of Disadvantaged Youth

Campers let loose during a swim session with a quick splash war. Credits: Gabrielle Bilik
Campers Joshua Edouard, 10, Ty'Jon Johnson, 10, Tarik Shell, 9, and Brice Penn, 9, strutt their stuff on the beach. Credits: Gabrielle Bilik
Counselors-in-training Sierra Frazier-Footes, 17, and Ian Porter Jackson, 17 Credits: Gabrielle Bilik

NORTH SALEM, N.Y.--For one week, kids at Camp Morty enjoy a quintessential summertime experience: They play games outside, sing and dance in talent shows, have slumber parties in yurts and go swimming. A far cry from the day-to-day realities many of the children face the other 51 weeks of the year, the camp offers them a respite from their troubles and the chance to simply be kids.

“They come here [and] it’s like a sanctuary; it’s so blissful,”  said Shaqueya Collymore-Bey a camp staff member and former camper. 

The hundreds of children ages 8 through 15 who come to Camp Morty each summer are in foster care, live in homeless shelters or are under child protective services. The camp was started 10 years ago to provide such children with a traditional summer experience, which the camp’s director, Dustin Hunter, said is important for children whose lives are atypical.

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“Camp is an equalizing experience,” he explained.

For students who wouldn’t be able to go to camp, the experience gives them some common ground with their classmates in the various Westchester County school districts they attend throughout the academic year. There are six one-week sessions each summer.

“We’re really just trying to instill a typical summer experience, where they can see the stars so in science class they can relate to what the textbook is saying,” Hunter said. “The idea here is not specific to the population, (but) to all children having the opportunity to go to camp.”

For the last 10 years, the camp has operated out of Mountain Lakes Park in North Salem. The camp is operated by the Westchester Parks Foundation in partnership with the Westchester County Department of Social Services and Department of Community Mental Health.

“It’s a unique program in that multiple agencies in Westchester County have decided to come together and work together to support the children of  the community,” Hunter said.

Through emphasizing values such as concern for others, cooperation, sportsmanship and environmental awareness, the camp aims to provide campers with a fun-filled experience that offers an opportunity for personal development, according to the camp’s mission statement.

Campers are encouraged to display leadership skills and to reflect on their time at camp daily, weekly and even annually if they return, which many do. Many of those who came to Camp Morty as young campers went on to become counselors in training and eventually joined the staff of the camp, which Hunter said is among the camp’s goals.

Collymore-Bey is the camp’s resident “sport expert” this summer. “Experts” are like counselors, and counselors are assigned one group per one-week session. Experts organize and lead group activities for all the age groups. 

As a former camper, the 21-year-old college senior has experienced the camp at every level and said she hopes to give campers the experience she had, which is a common sentiment among those who become counselors themselves.

Counselor-in-training 17-year-old Ian Porter Jackson said his first time at Camp Morty was “life-changing.” He has been coming to the camp since he was 8 years old.

“I came here thinking, ‘Why am I here? I just want to go home, this is not for me,’ and then as the one week had progressed, I just loved it,” he said.

“It changed me. It changed the way I saw things, the way I felt it. [It] just changed almost everything about me,” he said. “It kind of put a place in my heart where I know I’m comfortable here. I’m safe.”

Sierra Frazier-Footes, another 17-year-old counselor-in-training this summer, agreed. She described her first time at Camp Morty as “surreal” in how much it differed from her usual routines. One of the most valuable lessons she learned at Camp Morty, she said, was self-care.

“Outside of this place I carry a lot of responsibilities on my shoulders,” she explained. “I do a lot of things and it’s never really about me when I’m not here. But when I’m here, people show me that it can be about me sometimes and I can focus on myself…I can be everything I want to be all at once and still care for other people at the same time. So, it really showed me a new path at life and a new way of living.”

Alex Garcia, a current camper, has been visiting the camp since he was 8 years old. Now 15, he describes Camp Morty as “a second home.” Although it’s just a week out of every year, Garcia said the bonds formed at camp are long-lasting.

“I love seeing my old friends, coming back and hanging out with them again,” he said, “[And] meeting new people that I become friends with and then hoping to see them the next year.”

Garcia said that Camp Morty has reinforced positive coping skills through activities like “key log,” when campers reflect on their day or week and share their thoughts with the other campers. Garcia said that habit of reflection helps him out if he is upset or mad, because he also focuses on the positives. He said he would like to eventually become a counselor.

“I really don’t want to leave this camp behind,” Garcia said. “This is one of the best places I’ve ever been.”

For Hunter, it’s rewarding to watch the campers grow into leadership roles over the years and to welcome new children each year. 

“It’s [cool] to watch how that’s evolved over 11 years,” he said. “It started with eight campers going on a weekend experience in one of the Westchester County parks. Now 11 years later,  in our 10th season at Mountain Lakes Parks, we’re 86 campers this week, with a really well-trained staff and really positive experiences, and campers that have come back for years and years.”
While Hunter said he and the other leadership staff enjoy seeing the fruits of the labor they put into creating and stabilizing the program, they said they can now look for areas where they can expand or improve services. For instance, this year, there is an increased emphasis on securing locally-sourced food for the campers.

Additionally, previous challenges that existed early on, such as low teen enrollment, is not a challenge now, as the young campers from the early days have now grown into teens and even counselors.

“The goal is always to enhance the program,” he said.

Hunter said the leaders at Camp Morty are now looking to expand college awareness for the older campers who might not otherwise have college on their radar. That’s just one example he gave of how the camp’s programs have evolved to suit the needs of the campers over time.

And after 11 years in the county, Camp Morty has a growing following, Hunter added. This year, there were more applications than slots to fill. Hunter said the staff at Camp Morty are fully aware of the number of children eligible for the program.

“There are 5,000 kids in the county that are eligible for this program [and] we can only serve 510 every summer,” he said.

“There’s tons of opportunity for growth in this program and we’d love to see that happen and the only constraint right now is the ability for us to have funds to be able to provide that to people.”

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