A day camp, dedicated staff has long history


BY Michael Mandelkern

Children in bright blue and white tie-dye shirts, ages five through nine, ran, skipped and slowly shuffled into P.S. 234’s yard, some still clinging to their parents’ hands, for their first day at the junior Downtown Day Camp on Wednesday morning.

Counselors scrambled to break the ice on a sunny, mild day. A head counselor asked the 25 campers in his group to raise their hands and make a silly noise when their names were called. Some shouted for attention while others waddled on the side with their backpacks still on.

A second grader, who was a camper last summer, yelled, “Yes” when asked if he was excited. “I grew 50 inches,” he added.

“I love art,” exclaimed another kid from a different group who is starting his third summer at the D.D.C. “But I don’t know the schedule.”

Once parents cleared out of the yard, with some still by their children’s side, Dr. Russ Schulman, who has a Ph. D in Education from New York University and is director of what is now the Downtown Day Camps organization, led morning exercises with hard clapping, jumping jacks, hopping on one leg and calls for the camp to shout “Down! Town! Day! Camp!”

Lamont Williams, a team leader, got her campers’ day started with Queen’s “We Will Rock You” in the gym.

“Everybody, five, four, three, two, one. Hello campers,” said Williams, prompting a loud response from the children.

“It’s going to be a great summer,” said Gabi Sasson, a team leader.

Once the camp-wide orientation ended, counselors lined the campers up and led

them into the building. Sam Becker, co-head counselor of a first grade group, and his five colleagues walked their 27 children up to their room.

With 150 staff members and about 250 campers at the D.D.C. there is careful supervision. “I don’t know of a higher camper-to-counselor ratio, it’s better than any camp I know,” said Schulman.

“We’re going to get to know each other, hang out,” said Lila Goldstein, the group’s other head counselor, as kids in her group curiously glanced around the building and asked what they will do for the day.

Once in their homeroom, the children sat in a circle with counselors spread out. Becker, who began his fifth summer as a D.D.C. counselor, asked each of them to say their names and tell their favorite activities; bowling and swimming were the most popular. Shy children passed their turn while the most outgoing introduced themselves and their friends.

“What I want to do is enjoy a fantastic lunch,” said one boy as the group giggled.

Becker asked campers to brainstorm rules, such as no shouting, as some of them interrupted each other, highlighting treating one another how they would like to be treated as the “golden rule this summer.”

The kids nodded in agreement but were visibly restless. “You guys just want to play, don’t you?” he asked.

The D.D.C., which is running for its 19th year, has had access to the Manhattan Youth Downtown Community Center with its own pool in recent years and a few new activities, but Schulman believes his camp’s strength lies in its hesitance to adjustment and continued development of well-received activities.

“We’re not quick to change things up, but rather build on the programs we know are dynamic. We have great programs that kids love and tweak it a little to make it a little better,” said Schulman.

“You don’t fix something if it’s not broken,” said Becker.

A few years ago Schulman added African drumming and a filmmaking club and has continued them because of positive response. He also added a period for Story Pirates, a nationally recognized creative writing organization where actors and teachers act out sketches written by children.

Quinton Johnson, Educational Director of Story Pirates, will run the activity for the summer “with a less heavy creative writing activity,” he said.

Vincent Tedesco, who is returning for his eighth year on field staff and works for Manhattan Youth year-round, sometimes oversees about 100 children at once playing sports and games.

“For most kids it’s their favorite activity, they get to run around instead of being inside all day,” he said.

His top priority is for kids to have fun and being safe. “It’s not about who wins and who loses, we try to encourage all campers to participate,” said Tedesco.

Special once-a-month activities, such as an exotic animal display and sing-along guitar player, have also long been fixtures. Some one-time events, such as the “camp night out” and “crazy hat day,” have been around since the first summer and are well known amongst D.D.C. veterans; many counselors this summer wore outlandish hats as kids.

“They have grown up together and built this incredible community. When the kids grow up they continue to learn,” said Schulman.

Tedesco was born and raised Downtown and went to D.D.C. when he was in 7th grade nine years ago.

“It’s a great neighborhood and I love being part of the community. It’s such a great feeling to impact their lives. I used to look for to camp everyday as a kid,” he said, adding that basketball and swimming were his favorite activities.

Now he works beside Williams, who was his counselor in 2001, and stays in touch with his colleagues and fellow campers from years past. “I also know them as good friends,” he said.

As a former camper he understands that some children are nervous and carefully reaches out to them in the yard and at Pier 40 and the B.P.C. Ballfields.

“Sometime I say, ‘Hey, why don’t you come join us, why don’t you give it a shot,” said Tedesco.

Becker, who spent one year at D.D.C as a counselor, said he was “ready to meet people” as a child.

“I try to ease in those who aren’t comfortable. These kids are people too and we have to be mindful of that,” said Becker.

“The counselors [when he was a camper] were very cool. Everything was fun,” he said. “I want to be that counselor.”

Schulman attributes the camp’s stability to intimate staff oversight. “Community is about campers and staff fostering the most positive, fun and caring environment for the kids,” said Schulman.

All staff members are required to attend various orientations, some as long as eight hours, where are taught child safety, how to engage children, resolve conflicts and more. “On the job training is all day everyday,” added Schulman.

Becker embraces Schulman’s extensive training.

“He gets to know everybody on an individual basis and knows how to motivate us and also be nice about things if we screw up,” he said. “It’s a new year with new responsible, and if I’m also having fun then I’m doing my job.”

The camp is also staffed with eight team leaders who provide an extra layer of supervision over particular age groups and regularly communicate with head counselors. Many of them have worked at the camp for over 10 years and have a combined 150 years of experience in childcare.

The majority of activity specialists and counselors also have a long history with the D.D.C. Counselors have a return rate of over eighty percent, which provided little room for the over 200 new applicants for an average of about 25 seats this year.

“You have to impress us and know how to interact with people,” said Schulman in reference to hiring new staff. Grades and extracurricular achievements are also significant factors for high school and college applicants; they are required to include transcripts in their applications.

“The staff is mostly very high achieving students and are smart, have good judgment and are caring people,” said Schulman.

He stressed that although the camp offers sports and various indoor activities, the D.D.C. is more concerned with kids’ physical health and emotional growth than seeking out and training child prodigies.

“We concentrate on the whole child. I tell parents that if you want your child to be a professional golfer, then go to golf camp,” said Schulman

Throughout the past decade Tedesco believes that the camp’s expansion and development of organized activities have improved everyone’s camp experience.

“I’d say it’s change for the better,” he said.