“Good Morning. It’s good to see you all!” he roared in his familiar North Jersey dialect.
“Good Morning!” they shouted back
Ideally situated on the grounds of an 18th century farmstead that is surrounded by fields and forests, LifeCamp is open to children from post-Kindergarten through 8th grade from the Greater Newark Public School System, as well as from Newark Charter School Programs. The camp traces its history to John Ames Mitchell, founder and original editor of LIFE magazine. In 1887, Mitchell, along with New York Tribune editor, Horace Greeley, founded the Fresh Air Fund, which established rural summer camps, where underprivileged youth from the inner-city could escape the sweltering streets and get out into the fresh air and sunshine of the country.
In 1923, financier and renowned horseman, James Cox Brady, whose vast 5,000-acre estate, Hamilton Farm, reached across parts of three counties in New Jersey, allotted a portion of his land to LIFE’s Fresh Air Fund to establish a camp in Pottersville. Now known simply as LifeCamp, it is the last vestige of Mitchell’s movement, and while it remains true to his vision of providing a wholesome outdoor experience, the “new” LifeCamp has replaced the traditional woodcrafts and pioneer camping skills taught in the past, with programs geared to enrich the campers’ education, and foster life-skills that will help them succeed within and outside of an urban environment.
“We’re a camp, but now we’re really trying to position ourselves as an educational enhancement,” explained James C. Brady III, whose family has been committed to LifeCamp’s success since its inception five generations ago.
Camp programs, which are all taught by specialists in their subject areas, are designed to foster leadership skills and autonomy, and build confidence and self-esteem through a six-week program that “balances the arts, athletics and academic enrichment, as well as personal growth and development.”
“The kids go to LifeCamp during the summer, they don’t ‘backslide,’ said Brady, using a term to describe the summer learning loss that kids experience when they’re away from school for the summer and don’t keep their brains engaged. “They’re out here, doing stuff like bird-watching, learning nutrition… they’re learning how to swim, and they’re doing science experiments in the river... So they really don’t realize they’re going to school,” he quipped.
“There is life-long learning for everyone, and for kids, we’re really looking at year-round education, but not necessarily year-round in school, which is what makes the out-of-school sector so important,” added LifeCamp’s Executive Director, Kathy Cree. “It is a place where there aren’t assessments. It is a place where you can try new things and expand your horizons. You can be innovative, creative, and have fun with it. Rather than just be assessed in the drill and skill….”
A typical day at LifeCamp includes Arts and Crafts, Chess/Strategy Games, Computer Education, Dance, Drama, Physical Education, Percussion Orchestra, Publishing, Reading, Recording Studio, and a Ropes Course, as well as a new Robotics program. One of the favorite activities is exploring the Lamington River during Nature/Science class, and turning over rocks in shin-deep water to look for aquatic life.
“We found some crayfish today,” said Makka, a nature and STEM specialist at LifeCamp. “The kids love it. They found a couple of small tadpoles…a couple snails. They get excited over every little thing.”
Older campers also take a Values Class, taught by Eddie Franz, who utilizes the street-savvy he acquired during his own childhood and the teaching skills he’s honed over 36 years at the distinguished, Morristown-Beard School, in Morristown, to tackle hypothetical but all too real problems faced by urban youth, such as; gangs, pregnancy, drugs and drug dealing, as well as healthy nutrition, stress reduction and conflict resolution.
“The first thing we need to do is to know everybody’s name,” said Franz. “That’s the most critical thing - that’s staff, counselors, that’s kid on kid. It’s not ‘that boy hit me, that girl hit me’ it becomes a name. So, they’re a person now and that gives you that first sense of value. Second, we need to hear both sides of the story. What happened? The things these kids do when you hear a skirmish, is they will not talk audibly. They’ll not look you in the eye. They’re making an assumption that like at home or at school, they’re already guilty. Right? So nobody wants to hear the story. I want to hear the story...I want to hear what happened. The third thing to me, with a few exceptions, is it ‘ain’t’ that bad. It can be dealt with right? You made a mistake...you screwed up... it’s not the end of the world. We can figure this out.”
“The overriding goal is to give kids the skills they need to have happy and successful lives. And those are lots of buckets,” said Kathy Cree.
Of course, if you’re a kid, the “overriding goal” of summer camp is fun, and at LifeCamp, there is plenty of space and ample time to play some flag football, take a turn on a tire swing, or ride bikes down to the Black River General Store for a treat, but by far, the favorite activity is swimming.
“Swimming is the cornerstone of LifeCamp,” said Kathy Cree. “The sad statistic is: African American kids drown at a rate that is 3x higher than white kids. They don’t have access to lessons… So our kids have swimming lessons every day for 45 minutes, and then they have 45 minutes of free swim. It is the absolutely most beloved program. If you want to do a field trip or something special, they ask, ‘is this going to interfere with swimming?’ We poll the kids at the end of summer… what is your favorite program? Every year it’s swimming. That’s probably followed second by bikes. Many of the campers don’t even know how to ride a bike. The kids are like, “this is amazing! We can ride to the general store!”
With a 6:1 ratio of campers and staff, interaction with the volunteers and staff at LifeCamp has become an integral part of the trust and relationship-building that is nurtured at LifeCamp. Around two-thirds of the counseling staff are local teens, who begin as volunteers and go on to become junior and senior counselors, while a third are former campers who have aged out of the program but still want to return each year.
“This is my 3rd summer now back at camp so most of these kids I’ve known and their parents for the last 3 years,” said Maaka, “so we build that relationship over time. They say ‘good morning’ they give you a hug. It’s like a family.”
“They have a ball. It’s like camp for everybody!” said Kathy Cree.
Cree’s son, John, began volunteering at LifeCamp when he was a sophomore at Delbarton, and is the reason she is now one of the camp’s greatest advocates.
“My predecessor was Patti McCormick,” she told us. “She and I were talking… and she said, ‘oh, this might be something John would be interested in doing.’ So he started volunteering... and I would pick him up and truly, the difference it made in him, was incredible. I went from being a fan to a super-fan of LifeCamp. It was great, unbelievable.”
Parents are asked to contribute $75 a week, to send their kids to LifeCamp, which is a stretch for many, but the actual cost is around $360 per child, per week, so fundraising is an on-going endeavor. Support for the camp comes directly from donations and fundraising efforts held throughout the year, such as the Mars/Essex Horse Trials, that takes place every June at Moorland Farms in Far Hills, and the joint-venture golf outing with the Boys and Girls Club, which has been their biggest contributor for the last 6 years.”
“We need to raise over $500,000 every year. We have no endowment,” said Brady. “So, it’s whatever people can give. Some give $50-$100 per year, some give multiple $1,000 per year - whatever gets us to that number.”
For the past five years, LifeCamp has been getting their name out into the public so that a larger audience can learn about what they do and the plans they are exploring to expand their pioneering efforts.
“I have this vision, and we’ve already started talking to people about it, is to take what we’re doing here, around the country. You may not find an idyllic a site as this, but there is a lot of under-utilized real estate. I think there’s a lot of buy into what we’re doing in terms of, it’s really a year-round educational process, so that’s the niche that I think we fit in this whole thing,” said James Brady.
Kathy Cree is always happy to arrange a tour for anyone that is interested, something that Brady insisted we had to experience.
“You can’t really write this article without walking through the camp,” he told us before our own tour. “There is nothing like it … you can talk about this all day long, but until you get somebody out there and they see it, and they’re like ‘oh my god.’”
With almost 100 acres of fields, woods and riverfront, as well as rustic but innovative classrooms, LifeCamp strives to create a safe and nurturing home away from home for campers to escape the troubles and anxieties of everyday life. It’s an open space where their imaginations roam freely, where they can discover their self-esteem, and find their talents, with mentors who care deeply about their growth, emotional well-being, and education. Asked to sum up LifeCamp in one word, campers have described it as “fun,” “magical,” and “family.”
“We are the last one and it’s incredible,” said Executive Director, Kathy Cree, “There is such incredible need.”
To learn more about LifeCamp programs and how you can get involved, please contact Kathy Cree, Program Officer, at Kathy@greaternewarklifecamp.org or call 973-867-3213 or visit greaternewarklifecamp.org
Mixologist Robby Seibert doubles on the sax.
LifeCamp: From the Pool to Back-to-School, There’s No “Backsliding” for These Summer Campers
By Chris & Lee Wolfe / Photos by Grace Weihl with Additional Photos Courtesy of LifeCamp
“Alright, look up and listen!” shouted Camp Director, Edward “Eddie” Franz, to the restless throng of campers and staff members that had gathered around the flagpole for the morning greeting at LifeCamp in Pottersville, NJ. After 32 summers here, Franz is a living legend, and his larger-than-life presence is reason for excited conversation, but as a veteran educator and basketball coach at Morristown-Beard School, Eddie Franz knows how to be heard above a crowd, and in an instant all eyes and ears are turned his way.