As the story goes a group of kids and camp counselors were sitting around the camp fire one night gazing at the stars when one of the kids asked what the name of a certain star was. The counselor answered, “It’s the star CaPella, and the group of smaller stars around it is called “the kids”.” The name stuck. And “Camp CaPella” was born. For some 45 years the camp was a program of the United Cerebral Palsy of Maine and like a lot of folks in Maine, they would dust off the cobwebs and clean out the critters each spring. Camp would open for children with physical and intellectual disabilities for seven weeks and then they would lock the doors and go home for the winter. There was never a focus on the camp becoming a self-sustaining operation so it was mostly money out and nothing in. So, in 2005 UCP made the strategic business plan to close the camp for good.
So there it sat. This beautiful place on Phillips Lake in Dedham, empty, with just a lot of memories for all the kids and counselors who had once been such an important part of the camp.
How could this happen? Such an important resource for families with children with disabilities just sitting there falling apart. What would it take for this place to be re-born? Many thought, nothing less than a miracle would save it. But a group of community folks thought that it was worth fighting for. They set out to raise enough money to hire a director and with an agreement from UCP to let them use the camp grounds to get something started. In 2008 Camp CaPella re-opened for day camp for seven weeks. To many it was a surprise to have as many campers as the camp had that first year, not at capacity but darn good. AND the bills all got paid!
It was in February of 2008 when a phone call was received from an unexpected caller. “Dana”, the caller said. “I don’t believe we have ever met but my name is Doris Buffett. You probably know my brother, Warren,” (Got my attention immediately). She went on, “I was reading in the Bangor Daily News about your camp, and I’d like to know more about it.” By 2009, after the camp obtained its IRS tax exempt status, I got another call. “Dana, this is Doris, I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”
And so the little camp that could got an unexpected boost, a hand up - an interest free, payment free mortgage so that we could buy all of the camp property from UCP of Maine, along with a matching grant of $65,000 that we would have a few months to match. That money would all need to be spent on ONLY capital improvement projects to fix up the property that the Sunshine Lady Foundation (Doris Buffett) had made possible for us to purchase. All we had to do was to run camp successfully for 5 years and Doris would forgive the mortgage and the camp would be all ours, free and clear. Yup, all we had to do was to raise $200,000 every year, fix up the camp property, build new programs, get new boats, docks, find a way to build a weekly overnight camp program, and pay all the bills without incurring any debt, (PHEW!). The community had to prove that this camp was worth keeping before The Foundation would turn it over to us.
Today Camp CaPella operates a day camp, a weekly overnight camp, and this year we tested out a new Adventure Travel camp for our teen campers. We have new pontoon boats, new docks, a newly renovated bunk house, and the grounds look simply amazing. We bring campers with disabilities such as Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy, Spina Bifida, brain injuries, Down Syndrome, autistic campers, ---- kids, teens, and adults with disabilities many can’t even pronounce….disabilities that would keep them away from just about all other camp opportunities. They come here. Last summer they came from 11 different counties in Maine, four different states and this year even a camper from Beijing, China. We have paid all our bills without debt and, Doris Buffett will soon officially forgive the debt. The camp will be all ours, debt free. The Little Camp That Could, the little camp that it would take a miracle to save - Is Alive and Well!
Many people do not realize that once our campers and staff go home for the Summer, we open the doors of Camp to other agencies who also work with children and adults with special needs. Every week until the end of September, Camp CaPella will open its doors to one agency or another. This past week we’ve had the pleasure of visiting with OHI of Maine whose mission is to: offer people with disabilities the resources they need to make life choices
and set their own goals.
OHI arrived on a Saturday afternoon with a large U-Haul truck and by Monday morning, Camp CaPella was completely transformed! It was a wonderful week, both weather wise and activity wise. A week at Camp CaPella would not be complete without a boat ride and while on the water this week the following happened:
Capt. Dana (AKA: our Executive Director) and OHI campers were enjoying one of their boat trips when they came to the rescue of a kayaker in a lot of trouble.
There were very few boats on the lake that afternoon as the weather had suddenly turned windy. The campers were all admiring one of our eagles in a tall tree when Capt. Dana spotted an empty kayak in the middle of the lake. Upon closer investigation, the Capt. spotted a person in the water trying to get to the nearest land, one of the islands on the lake. Capt. Dana and the OHI crew were able to pull the kayaker, as well as his boat, onto the pontoon boat, where a tired, cold, and very grateful kayaker thanked us for the help. He had been in the water for some 45 minutes and was still quite a ways from dry land.
Our Capt. and the kayaker took the opportunity to point out to the OHI campers, “This is why we all put on life jackets.” As the kayaker testified, “I would have been in a LOT of trouble if not for my life jacket!” (and Camp CaPella!)
Shawn has been coming to Camp CaPella every Summer for many years now. Shawn has Cerebral Palsy and coming to Camp CaPella each Summer is something he looks forward to all year long!
Throughout the year, we receive many letters from Shawn. In his own handwriting, he shares his excitement over his upcoming trip to Camp. One day earlier this summer, a letter appeared from Shawn. It read:
“Hi, hope all is going well. I am writing to you because I have saved 200,75 dollars ($275) in less than three months. I am sending you a check. I would like to buy a brick. I would like it to say Shawn M. McCue Strong Camp Supporter. See you soon, Shawn.”
We quickly set in motion to order Shawn’s brick. His brick would be placed in the Memories of a Lifetime Garden here at Camp.
The goal was to have the brick ready to be placed by Shawn himself while he was here at Camp. On a Thursday afternoon, just after lunch, the entire staff and campers gathered on the patio. Dana, executive director of Camp CaPella, gave a short speech explaining to everyone what was about to happen. As Dana spoke, the smiles, and even a few teary eyes, spread across the faces of everyone in attendance.
Shawn, who is in a wheelchair, maneuvered closer to the spot where his brick was to be placed. He then started to push himself up and out of his chair, standing! And then with the help of staff, Shawn got down on his hands and knees!! On all fours, he set his brick into place and pounded it down. He spread sand around the brick to fill in the cracks and with one more push, a new brick – Shawn’s Brick – was placed into the Memories of a Lifetime Garden here at Camp CaPella – forever!
One day in July a call came in asking if our facility could accommodate a woman in a wheelchair who would like to go swimming. Fona is a 52 year old woman who resides at Collier’s Rehab and Nursing Center in Ellsworth, Maine. Fona had not been swimming since 1996 and when the staff at Collier’s asked their patients to put together a “bucket list,” one of Fona’s requests was to get in the water once again!
This was a request we could not say no to! About a week later, Fona arrived at camp with three members of the Collier’s staff. Fona was transferred from her mechanical wheelchair into one that was more suited for the water. Before swimming, she and the staff of Collier’s were treated to a boat ride on Camp CaPella’s pontoon boat. We had to be sure Fona was given the full “camp experience!” We checked on the eagle’s nest and found a young eagle resting for the afternoon. We made a stop at Camp CaPella’s pet rock. We cruised over to the other side of the lake and came upon a family of loons. Dana used his phone to play a loon call which attracted the family immediately towards the boat. Momma Loon, Pappa Loon and two babies swam right up to the boat. Momma Loon lead her babies out a safe distance while Pappa Loon circled the boat and entertained Fona and the rest of the passengers by diving deep into the lake and re-appearing on the other side of the boat.
Fona was escorted back to camp where she was lifted from her wheelchair by the dock’s hoya lift and lowered into the lake. Her anticipation and excitement was contagious as many of the camp staff and campers gathered around. As soon as she touched the water her face nearly exploded into smiles. Many clapped and cheered her on. Fona had two helpers guide her in the water and she wore a life jacket so she could stretch out and simply float in the water. Before long though Fona plugged her nose and instructed her helpers to “dunk me!”
The sun disappeared behind the clouds and Fona started to feel the chill and reluctantly returned to her wheelchair. But as she dried off and prepared to leave, her lips curled up and that wonderful smile was there again…..a look of pure joy!