For decades, Catholic Charities offered city kids a chance to enjoy a slice of summer life in rural Putnam Valley. Thanks in large part to Catholic Charities’ donors, that tradition continues today, as day campers from an Alianza-sponsored program in the Bronx enjoyed a day of fun and games as summer wound down.
Rich Mansfield scans the sky on a late August day as a misty rain falls on Blair Lodge in Putnam Valley.
Through the clouds he sees hope. At least it’s not the floods that hit the Catholic Charities camp earlier this summer. It’s 10 a.m., and he’s awaiting a busload of 35 day campers from the Highbridge section of the Bronx in an hour. They attend a summer day camp operated by Alianza, a division of Catholic Charities Community Services of the Archdiocese of New York. Rich is a third-generation caretaker of Blair Lodge, grew up here, been attending camps since he was 10 years old. He describes to a visitor the wildlife of deer, foxes and the occasional bobcat that live in the area and exudes a quiet confidence that these events usually work for the best.
The campers’ bus arrives at the appointed time, and, by 11:30, a bright sunshine envelops what turns out to be a raucous day of fun for the Bronx kids, who are soon lawn bowling, playing basketball, jumping rope and rolling down a grassy knoll, enveloped in the damp lawn amid squeals of uninhibited joy. Only the occasional encounters with hostile bees breaks the happy air.
“It’s so green,” says one camper, noting the contrast between the streets of the Bronx and the site in Putnam Valley which has provided fun and a taste of rural life for city kids sponsored by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York. This summer’s camp outings have been put off by the unusual regional flooding, with this event serving as a capstone for a summer’s worth of activities. These children will soon be back in elementary school with a season full of memories.
They attend the day camp free-of-charge, thanks in part to generous donors of Catholic Charities. This summer they have traveled the region in varied educational endeavors, including a visit to the Crayola Factory in Pennsylvania, the Maritime Museum in Connecticut, and will soon take in the art of Faith Ringgold at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. This camp event is focused not so much on education but on ending the summer on a fun moment. Campers who were here last year remember the sprinkler runs as a highlight and wonder if the experience will be repeated.
“This is a wonderful time to be free, to be kids,” says Rafaelina Tineo, who has taught and led this group of campers this summer. She is assisted by counselors hired via the Summer Youth Employment Project (SYEP), who she says have been invaluable.
It’s been a learning experience for the counselors, who are in their later years of high school or early college, earning some money while learning to lead young people.
“I’ve learned to be patient to manage kids,” says Jasen Cepeda, a SYEP counselor. “I’ve had to change the way I respond from one kid to another,” he says, noting that they all have different personalities and needs.
The different personalities are evident today. Some of the children boldly run up and down the hill near the campgrounds. A few cautiously remain at the picnic tables. Some flee from the bees, others caution not to attack what they describe as needed insect friends.
The campers come from struggling backgrounds, some more than others. Rafaelina notes that some are children of migrant families. Covid isolation cut off many from the basics of childhood fun. Some, before coming to the camp, had almost no experience that there is a world beyond the Bronx.
“It’s like I can let out my anger when I’m doing camper stuff,” said one appreciative youngster.
Rafaelina shows off her collection of cellphone videos featuring day campers proudly displaying artwork about their families. Some talk about the perils of racism they face. Others proudly display their grandma’s Dominican cooking.
“Art is so important,” says Rafaelina. “It heals,” she says, noting that many of the children struggle through difficult immigrant experiences, the drag that Covid played in their young lives, and the gun violence that has erupted on city streets in recent years. “I like to tell the children that they have creative minds. We are dealing with a lot of issues. Art and music are important,” she says.
Because of the soaked grounds, the sprinkler run has been ruled out, as the too-short time runs towards 4 p.m., when the day campers return to the Bronx. Makayla Matos, a camper, expresses disappointment, as she remembers what fun running through the sprinkler was last summer.
Still, she says, asked to rate the day’s experience, “It’s nine out of 10. But if we just got wet, it would be a 10 out of 10.” Next summer, she will hope for better weather and a chance to bring that score up a notch.