The staff of Huntington's North Shore Holiday House often deals with girls who are homesick -- either for their own set of four walls or for someone else's.
"I really want to go to camp because I have lived in a shelter for this whole year of 2013 and it has been really boring and now I want to loosen up and have the best summer ever."
Jocelyn, then 11, wrote those sentiments in an essay last year, as she applied to be selected for a two-week summer camp session. She just wanted to make good friends and participate in the talent show, just as young, low-income girls like her have done for nearly a century at the nonprofit's summer camp. She was one of 200 girls ages 7 to 11 from low-income homes across Long Island who spent two weeks, free of charge, at the Huntington camp.
Janet Barone, president of Holiday House's advisory board, remembers another "homesick" camper. The girl kept asking when her mother was coming to get her. Only later did Barone find out that the child wasn't tired of summer camp. Rather, camp was especially nice in the girl's mind because when it was over, she would have something else to look forward to.
"I get to go to my new home today," she said.
Welcoming girls for 100 years
June marks the 100th anniversary of Holiday House's existence. The organization celebrated with a bigger-than-usual spring benefit, which included the dedication of a new pool. The organization has been in Huntington since the beginning, when philanthropist August Heckscher -- for whom Heckscher Park is named -- donated land on Prime Avenue for the camp. The nonprofit moved to its current site on Huntington Road in 1919, housed in a World War I building that had been moved there. That home burned down in 1923 and another was built. In 2003, the organization tore down that building, which had deteriorated over the years, and replaced it a year later with its current main house. The camp on the property is funded through sales from a thrift store that is also on-site, plus donations and money raised at two annual fundraisers.
At the start, the camp's beneficiaries were New York City girls -- many of them immigrants -- getting a chance to escape the crowded tenements of Manhattan for the open space of Long Island under the auspices of the Fresh Air Fund.
Now, the campers all come from Long Island, and the focus is on girls from low-income families who may be living with single mothers, in shelters or are being raised by grandparents.
"They have all kinds of needs coming from situations that are not the best . . . [the girls] could use a break," Barone said. "And the parents could sometimes use a break to get their lives together."
The girls' stories run the gamut, as do the routes of people who come to Holiday House's aid. Barone, 50, grew up in East Norwich and had never heard of Holiday House before moving to Huntington 15 years ago. The one friend she had in Huntington invited her to the organization's annual holiday luncheon at the Milleridge Inn in Jericho. Soon after, Barone joined the advisory board, and her current stint as president is her second since she began volunteering. The camp's needs are always evolving, she said.
"One thing that's really a big change . . . there was a time not that long ago when most kids didn't have computers in the home," she said. "We built a new building and put in a computer lab; the kids were so excited. Last year, we decided we wanted to unplug the kids. It was the exact opposite: Most all the kids have computers."
The computer lab is now a chemistry lab, the idea being to get more of the girls interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.
'People got involved'
To attend camp, girls must start by filling out an application and completing medical forms with proof of a physical exam and vaccinations. The documents, along with a $20 application fee, must be mailed to the camp's office. Sessions start June 30 and end Aug. 22. Barone said limited spots are still available for the last two sessions: July 28-Aug. 8 and Aug. 11-22.
During their stay, campers learn not only how to make their beds, but how to keep their clothes organized and their bunk and bathroom areas clean. They expand their horizons with science, nature, dance, music, arts and crafts and other activities. Swimming is a big part of camp life, as is the evening program, which could be a carnival, campfire or scavenger hunt, and trips to local museums or nature centers.
About 18 months ago, Barone was at the Huntington Library to learn more about gardening when she met Elizabeth Ann Rexer Leonard, who runs EARL's Kitchen Gardens in Huntington and helps people create home gardens where they grow their own food. Barone ended up asking Leonard about putting in a garden at Holiday House.
Leonard did the math and figured that the garden would cost $1,200 to build. She asked whether she could start one if she raised the money herself, and Barone happily said yes.
One of the people Leonard reached out to was Michelle Paternoster of Cold Spring Harbor whose husband, Paul, remembers his wife raising the money in a couple of hours after sending emails to various friends. She was fighting cancer -- undifferentiated spindle cell sarcoma -- at the time.
"When you're battling a disease it's overwhelming; it strips your life away from you," said Paul Paternoster, a member of the advisory board. "The joy of being able to help these kids from her bed was really rejuvenating to her."
Michelle Paternoster lost her 12-year battle and died June 23, 2013. She was 34.
But her legacy doesn't end with the garden. The camp had been trying to replace its pool for years, only to be delayed by budgetary constraints. That changed last year, thanks to a special night at the Rexer-Parkes clothing boutique in Huntington. The owner is Rexer Leonard's mother, Francine, and between raffles and a portion of store sales going to the fund to replace the pool and establish an endowment to help maintain it, $160,000 was raised in one evening.
Paul Paternoster then donated $45,000, and for his effort the pool was dedicated to his late wife. It will officially welcome swimmers when they arrive at camp tomorrow.
Besides getting the pool opened, Paternoster said his wife's impact will help take Holiday House into its next 100 years.
"People got involved, close personal friends of hers," he said. "Since my wife was younger, it brought a whole younger generation" into helping Holiday House.
'It can be life-changing'
Megan Dunphy-Gregoire has worked at the camp since 2009 and has been its director since 2010. Ask her about Holiday House's impact, and she recalls a camper last year who was a little "too cool for school." Dunphy-Gregoire, 34, of Riverdale in the Bronx, said the girl acted like she didn't want to be at camp, so Dunphy-Gregoire was a little surprised when she got a call from the girl later in the year "begging" to come back.
A spot was available, and the girl returned. She got sick after arriving but wanted to stay so badly that she wouldn't let her mother come get her.
"It can be life-changing. It can change personalities," Dunphy-Gregoire said. "This is the kind of experience that can change someone for life."
Dunphy-Gregoire adds that she gives the counselors -- who usually come from England, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and other countries via the organization Camp America -- as transparent an understanding of campers' backgrounds as she can, so that they'll all approach the girls from a "place of compassion."
Barone said that compassion extends to the Huntington community, filled with people who want to be a part of Holiday House as soon as they find out about its mission.
During the fundraiser "we had a cabin open, like camp would be in session," Barone said. "They could touch and feel what it was like for the campers to be there. I think that's unusual, to really get a sense of the organization you're giving to."
Paternoster goes a step further. He said that he and his wife had helped raise funds for cancer-related charities, but that dealing with young people who aren't sick but just need an opportunity offers a different kind of fulfillment.
"People are inspired by the Holiday House to help them because it's a charity of joy and happiness," Paternoster said.
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North Shore Holiday House prides itself on being able, a century after its creation, to "continue to provide a quality camp program for girls in need at no cost to them."
To help raise money for its camp operations, the organization has a thrift shop that accepts new or gently used and clean clothing, housewares, jewelry, toys, small furniture and other items. It is closed when camp is in session and will reopen in September. For more information call 631-427-2944. To learn more about North Shore Holiday House, call 631-427-7630 or email email@example.com.
YOU MIGHT CONSIDER . . .
Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck in Center Moriches is for children and young adults ages 6 to 21 with physical and developmental disabilities. Contact: 631-878-1070.
Shibley Day Camp, which covers 20 shaded acres in Roslyn Heights. The 85-year-old camp is open Monday-Friday, 9 to 4:30 p.m., from June 30 to Aug. 22 and offers programs for junior and senior campers 3 to 13 years old. Campers can stay for all 8 weeks, but a 4-week minimum (which can be completed consecutively or in increments at the camper's discretion) is required. There is a four-week miniday program for 3- to 5-year-olds who aren't ready to be away from home for a full day, and year-round camping activities on weekends include tai kwon do classes, spring carnivals, pool parties and bus rides. Contact: Bill Brodsky, director, at 516-621-8777 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, go to shibleydaycamp.com.
For more volunteer information and opportunities, contact the Long Island Volunteer Center at 516-564-5482; longislandvolunteercenter.org.