Sometimes it’s quite a challenge for Sandy Braun to do her job. She keeps getting interrupted with kisses.
Camper John Milano, 22, for instance, gives Braun a hug and a buss as he passes by one morning at Camp Anchor in Lido Beach. As director of the junior camp at Camp Anchor, Braun is used to doling out and receiving affection from the camp's 658 kids and adults with special needs.
Camp Anchor is an unusual oasis where campers with diagnoses such as cerebral palsy, autism and Down syndrome spend six weeks at a day camp on the ocean. Anchor is an acronym for Answering the Needs of Citizens with Handicaps through Organized Recreation, and the camp is celebrating its 50th summer this year. The year-round Anchor program was founded in 1968 and launched its first summer camp program a year later.
That first summer, camp had 70 campers, 12 volunteers and 45 staff members. Jeff Smith, now 68, was one of those volunteers and is now director of the senior camp. “I didn’t know I was going to love the place and stay for 50 years,” Smith says. Braun wasn’t far behind him – she started 45 years ago, when she was 15. “Once you’re in, you just can’t go,” she says. “Watching these kids, they kind of project the world we all wish we lived in. No judgment. Tolerance.”
In addition to campers ages 5 to grown – the camp once had an 84-year-old camper -- there are 330 volunteers and 250 staff members, giving the camp an almost 1-to-1 staff/volunteer to camper ratio, says Mary Ann Hanson, camp director. There are also 700 people on a waiting list to be campers. Campers must live in the Town of Hempstead. Until three years ago, camp was free; now it costs $125 per camper, Hanson says.
This year, camp added a therapeutic horseback riding program. Next year it's adding a spray park. Earlier this summer, the town announced plans to expand the camp in 2019 to accommodate at least 40 more campers.
On a typical camp day, buses arrive around 9:40 a.m. at the campground, made up of colorful tents, three swimming pools, a private oceanfront area where campers swim and learn to surf, and more. Campers have arts and crafts, drama, dance and sports. They also enjoy the indoor Malone-Mulhall Recreation Center, opened four years ago and named in memory of a camp tragedy; in 2010, young adult sisters Jamie and Paige Malone and their friend Michael Mulhall were killed in a car accident driving to their jobs as volunteers.
Marianne Pizza's son, Michael, 23, has autism and has been attending camp since he was 5. Pizza, of Franklin Square, is a member of the board of the Anchor program fund, which supplements the camp’s budget. “It has given him a social life that he never had before. It has given him friends,” she says. “His days are filled with joy and happiness. I would never move out of the Town of Hempstead just for that reason alone.”
Says Margaret Buonsignore, 59, of Baldwin, who has had two sons attend the camp: “Sometime the world isn’t nice to our kids. They’ll look at them, they’ll stare at them, they’ll say things. ‘What’s wrong with him?’ But here, you would never know that. If they’re having a tantrum, they’re not looked at. Nobody’s ever shamed for their emotional needs.”
Camper Kaya Pace, 11, of Lido Beach, who has Down syndrome, says camp is “great.” “Sometimes we go to home ec,” she says, referring to home economics, the activity during with the campers prepare recipes to eat. Her favorite? “Nachos,” she says. For John Kilduff, 14, of Rockville Centre, who also has Down syndrome, one of the best parts of camp is the 13-foot-deep dive tank with diving board. “Jumping in the pool,” he says. “We touch bottom.”
Along with the campers arrive the droves of volunteers and staff. Campers are in red T-shirts, volunteers in blue T-shirts, and staff in white polo shirts. Almost every camper in red is matched each day to a volunteer in blue.
Kayleigh O’Connor, 19, of Wantagh, says she started working at camp after she met some of the special education kids at Wantagh High School. “I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” she says. “Once I came to camp, it really confirmed I want to be a special ed teacher.” She says she’s learned a lot as a volunteer, such as how children who have autism like to stick to their schedules and how to help them to branch out socially and make connections with other campers.
Sean Reilly, 17, of Malverne, a rising high school senior, is in his third summer as a volunteer. “I enjoy the camp so much,” he says. “The kids. They’re so fun to be around. Watching them smile every day -- I definitely want to stick with this through college.”
Says camper Taylor Hand, 25, who has autism and who has been coming to camp since she was 8: “It’s the best place on Earth.”
Campers and volunteers must be Town of Hempstead residents.
Campers: Call Camp Anchor at 516-431-6946 and request an application to be mailed to your home. After applying, you’ll be sent a confirmation letter. Current waiting list time depends on openings in the person’s age group, but average wait time is about seven years. It’s recommended that people apply as soon as a person is diagnosed even if they aren’t yet of camp age. Campers must be at least 5 years old.
Volunteers: Call Camp Anchor on Jan. 2 to go on a wait list for openings.
Other camps for children with disabilities
Camp Abilities, Garden City 516-567-8898, campabilitieslongisland.org
Camp Achieve, Oceanside, 516-766-4341, friedbergjcc.org
Camp Kehilla, Wheatley Heights, 516-484-1545, campkehilla.org
Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck, Center Moriches, 631-878-1070, camppaquatuck.com
Camp Bright Star, Town of Huntington, 631-351-3089, tohparks.com
Southampton Fresh Air Home, Southampton, 631-283-1594, sfah.org
Gersh Academy at West Hills Day Camp, Huntington, 631-385-3342, westhillsdaycamp.com