Tag Archives: Camp Manitou

Academy Camps Competes In Youth Sports Niche

Once upon a time, summer sleepaway camps were the only thing. Boys and girls played a variety of sports, did arts and crafts, had campfires and color wars — all for 8 weeks in the woods.

Then came sports camps. They offered specialization in one thing — basketball say, or soccer — led by noted college coaches, and their athletes.

It’s hard to find a “sports camp” anymore. They’ve morphed into “ID camps,” marketing themselves as the best way to get onto a college program’s radar — early.

They’re all about competing for coaches’ attention. There’s little instruction. But there is plenty of down time, away from the court or field. Sometimes, athletes are not even on campus. They’re holed up in a hotel, playing video games during down time.

“ID camps” and their cousin, “college showcases,” are now so prevalent that many youngsters feel the need to attend several each summer. Even those who enjoyed a traditional summer camp decide, reluctantly, that they can’t go back. They “have to” travel the country, hoping to shine for at least one college coach.

Jem Sollinger, Jon Deren and Josh Hahn know that landscape well. Owners and directors of 3 highly regarded traditional summer camps — Laurel, Manitou and Somerset respectively, all in Maine (the first 2 with winter offices in the same Brooks Corner building in Westport) — they have seen first hand the demise of “all-sports” camps, and their replacement by “ID” camps.

Academy Camps founders.

Laurel, Manitou and Somerset continue to thrive, with long wait lists. But as Sollinger, Deren and Hahn — longtime colleagues and friends, all of whom grew up playing multiple sports — talked, they wondered if they could create something that combined a traditional summer camp experience with a specialized emphasis on one sport.

They could — and they did.

Academy Camps opens this summer. With an emphasis on 4 sports — soccer, basketball, lacrosse and tennis — at Suffield Academy, using state-of-the-art athletic facilities on a 368-acre campus (but far from the Maine woods), it promises short sessions, excellent coaching, innovative leadership and more.

In other words: “a modern approach to the summer sports camp.”

Besides Sollinger and Deren, Academy Camps has a heavy Westport imprint. This is fertile territory for young athletes who have gone to summer camps, yet felt pressured to travel the “ID camp” circuit.

Mike Maurillo

The executive director is well known here too. Mike Maurillo — a former Fairfield University lacrosse captain, with more than 2 decades experience in advertising, and health and wellness — has spent 12 years in Westport as a volunteer coach in lacrosse, soccer, flag football and rec basketball.

When Academy Camps opens in June, much will be familiar to traditional summer campers. But much will be much different.

There are 3 sessions, for boys and girls ages 10 to 15. Each is 1 or 2 weeks — that’s up to the camper. The first begins June 25; the last ends on August 4.

There are morning and afternoon blocks for the sport of specialization. (With plenty of room: Suffield boasts 2 turf and 7 grass fields, 10 tennis courts and a 30,000-square foot fieldhouse).

Some of the facilities at Suffield Academy.

But athletes need more than just skills training. Academy Camps emphasizes leadership training and wellness too.

The schedule also includes an outdoor ropes course and balance bar, and work on mindfulness, breathwork, visualization, flexibility and mobility.

Former pro athletes and current college coaches will be invited to speak to campers too.

“We’re teaching the ‘character’ skills we as coaches don’t always have time for, or believe happen by osmosis,” Maurillo says. That includes goal-setting, communication, conflict resolution and appropriate reactions to pressure.

Many youth sports experts — and high-level athletes — decry the increasing emphasis on early specialization. Academy Camps provides opportunities for everyone to play flag football, pickup basketball, frisbee golf, floor hockey — the types of games kids enjoy at traditional camps (and whenever they get the chance to be kids at home too).

Another summer camp ritual that Academy Camps continues: color war. Contested each night, in everything from floor hockey to trivia contests, a scavenger hunt and a rope burning game, it’s a way to bring campers of all ages and both genders together.

Academy Camps will incorporate many elements of a traditional summer camp.

Like many summer camps — yet unlike most ID sports camps — this one is “tech-free.” Electronic devices are prohibited — the better to enhance teamwork, teach interpersonal skills, and reduce social pressures (and dependence on parents).

Maurillo ticks off other reasons he’s excited about Academy Camps’ launch: Much of the staff (including nurses, dining hall, maintenance and security) comes from Suffield Academy, so they know the facilities and have a vested interest in its success.

(One non-Suffield name: basketball director Mike Evans. Well known in this area, the former Weston High star founded Full Court Peace, a non-profit that brings diverse teens together to repair courts in low-income neighborhoods from Norwalk and New York to Havana.)

The Suffield academy location is another plus. Two hours from JFK and Logan airports — and just 10 minutes from Bradley — it’s more accessible than most summer camps.

And Academy has the whole school to themselves. There will be no other program during the summer.

Academy Camps will offer a higher level of the sports instruction already offered at many traditional summer camps.

Is there a concern Academy Camps will cannibalize the directors’ existing traditional camps?

No, Maurillo says.

Some youngsters who have enrolled in the sports program will also do a half-session at Laurel, Manitou or Somerset. Others were already ready to move on.

The involvement of Sollinger, Deren and Hahn gives Academy Camps legitimacy and prestige. “This is an ‘and,’ not an ‘or,'” Maurillo says.

And — most emphatically — not an “ID.”

(“06880” covers youth — and youth issues — all over town. Please click here to support your hyper-local blog. Thank you!)


Bereaved Kids Enjoy Great Camp Experience

When Darren was 10 years old, his father committed suicide. Like many children who have lost a parent or sibling, he felt not only the sting of death, but isolation from his peers. He was different, he thought, from every other kid.

Fortunately, he attended Experience Camp. Every summer, bereaved youngsters come together for a week. Most of their time is spent in typical camp activities — swimming, arts and crafts, campfires.

But with the guidance of licensed clinicians, they find opportunities to share their life stories with kids who are just like them.

Darren did not say a word all week about his situation. Nevertheless, he came back the next year. And the year after. The year after that, too.

Finally — in his 4th summer at “ExCamp” — a counselor told Darren privately that he too had lost his father to suicide. Tentatively, Darren opened up.

The next year, Darren became a leader. Today, he’s a counselor helping other kids share their own stories.

To Sara Deren, that’s what ExCamp is all about. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, she says. But caring support allows hundreds of youngsters to move on from the trauma of losing a loved one.

Deren is a Westporter. And Experience Camps — which has grown from one site and 27 kids in 2009, to a network of 4 camps in New York, California and Georgia, with 200 volunteers serving 500 boys and girls ages 9 to 16 a year — is headquartered right here in Westport.

Jon and Sara Deren

Deren never went to summer camp. She had a high-powered career in financial services. But she married into a camp family. Her husband Jon owned Camp Manitou for boys in Maine.

Deren quickly learned about the wonders of camp. She and her husband also recognized that its high price prevented many youngsters from enjoying the growth of a summer in the woods.

In 2008 they formed a foundation, with the broad mission of providing a camp experience to those who could not afford it. When they learned that Tapawingo — another Maine camp — ran a bereavement program for girls, they realized they could fulfill their goal by setting up a parallel week for boys.

Experience Camp began the next year. It ran the week after Manitou’s regular session ended.

Using crayons, campers express their feelings after someone very close has died.

It filled a crucial need. “For a kid, death can be incredibly isolating,” Deren says. “Feeling ‘less normal’ than everyone else — and not having a way to express it — can lead to detrimental actions, sometimes years later. This gives kids a place where they don’t feel alone. A lot of times it’s the only place where everyone understands what they’re going through.”

Many campers return each year, Deren adds, “because grief changes too.”

Darren — the boy who grew into a leader, after 4 years of silence — is one example of the wonders of Ex Camp. There are many more.

Steven’s father spent years in a vegetative state after a car accident, before finally dying. A year later, Steven’s mother succumbed to cancer. An only child with no other relatives, he was adopted by the woman who nursed his mother before she died.

Despite his horrific childhood, Steven had not lost his smart, articulate, mature personality. At the camp’s talent competition he recited all the presidents’ names — backward and forward — and held up a sign about running for president. He was named “Mr. ManEx” (Manitou Experience).

Campers rushed the stage to embrace him. “For the first time, he experienced a real family,” Deren says.

He returns to Ex Camp every year, “paying it forward.”

Deren serves as executive director of Experience Camps. Her office is in downtown Westport, right above Brooks Brothers (coincidentally, just down the hall from another Maine camp, Laurel).

She loves her work. Now — in addition to planning 4 summer sessions — she’s looking ahead to year-round efforts. “We do camp really well,” Deren says. “But we also want a way for kids to stay connected all year long.”

One of her jobs is fundraising. No child pays anything — including bus transportation to and from camp.

It costs $1,000 for a week at camp. That’s all covered, thanks to individual donations, foundation grants and fundraisers.

A week at Experience Camp is filled with fun.

All the hard work is worth it.

“The feeling of fulfillment — of making a difference, and giving other people an opportunity to make a difference too — is fantastic,” Deren says.

“Our supporters, our volunteers, our campers — everyone works together to create a microcosm of how the world should operate: with acceptance and inclusion.

“Being able to provide a way for kids to thrive, to find happiness and lightness in an otherwise dark time — what an incredible privilege.”

(Click here to learn more about Experience Camps. Click here for a series of powerful videos, and here for resources for helping youngsters deal with grief.)