Tag Archives: Experience Camps

“Day Of Champions” Will Be Quite An Experience

Westport is awash in organizations that benefit young people — here, in the rest of Fairfield County, the country and the world. It’s one of the strengths of our community.

Many throw fundraisers. Westporters support them generously, with time as well as money.

But most of these kid-focused groups’ events don’t actually involve young people themselves.

That’s why Experience Camp’s Day of Champions is so wonderful.

Not to mention unique, cool, and tons of fun.

Experience Camp is the Westport-based network of summer camps for youngsters who have lost a parent, sibling or primary caregiver. The program builds confidence, encourages laughter, and allows them to navigate grief through friendship, teamwork, sports and the common bond of loss.

This year, Experience Camps will serve 1,000 boys and girls, at 5 locations from Maine to California.

Of course, running such a life-changing program costs money: $1,000 for a week at camp.

For much of its first decade, Experience Camps — founded by Westporter Sara Deren — relied on gala fundraisers in big cities, and foundation grants.

In 2017 Deren asked fellow Westport resident Gery Grove to help raise funds here. She teamed with Melissa Post, who like Grove loved the idea of the camp.

They thought about the usual events, like cocktail parties. But they realized the best way to raise money for kids was to involve kids themselves.

Together with a hard-working committee, they launched the first Day of Champions in 2018.

Fun at Experience Camps’ Day of Champions …

Camp Mahackeno was the perfect venue for the camp-like color war/field day. Twenty teams of 10 to 15 people each (kindergarten through adult) competed in sponge races, an obstacle course, toothpick pickup contest with oven mitts, archery and others activities. Many wore costumes.

Points were awarded for spirit, fundraising, cheering and more. It was a joyful day — and it brought in over $150,000.

… and funny hair …

To participate, teams had to raise at least $1,000. Some were well over $25,000.

Organizers feared the first year might have been a fluke.

It wasn’t.

Last year’s Day of Champions brought in more than $225,000. Over the past 2 years, Westport’s Michelle Yanover — who lost her mom at 7 — has raised over $45,000. Working with his New York Life firm, Grove’s husband Matt added another $40,000-plus.

… and a tug-of-war …

This year’s 3rd annual event is Sunday, May 17 (8 to 11:30 a.m.). Due to construction at Mahackeno, it’s moved to another great location: Fairfield County Hunt Club.

Yet as fun and financially important as the Day of Champions is, there’s another element that makes it special.

… and more fun. (Photos/Stephen Dodd)

“It teaches kids a lot,” Grove says. “They learn there are other kids who need their support — kids who don’t have their entire family here anymore.

“Kids get a chance to raise money for a resonant cause. And they have the best time doing it. Our lives are busy, but families come and do this together. Kids, teachers, parents, town officials — everyone puts concerns and differences aside for the day. It’s a great time!”

(Click here to register a team. Spectators are welcome too.)

Rach’s Hope Shines Through

The family of one critically ill child could not visit much. The cost of hotels and meals away from home was prohibitive.

The family of another found lodging miles from a hospital — but had no way to get back and forth. Parents of a third worried about care for their other children, while they tended to their sick one.

When a child is diagnosed with a critical illness, parents face a blizzard of decisions. They’re in a fog of uncertainty and fear, handling a hurricane of tasks.

Yet in the midst of all that activity and emotion, one more weather-related metaphor stands out: a ray of sunshine.

It comes, gracefully and lovingly, from Rach’s Hope. The Westport-based foundation honors Rachel Doran. In 2018 the Staples High School National Merit Commended Scholar — a rising senior at Cornell University, talented Players costume designer, and founder of her own pajama company — developed a rare reaction to common medications.

She suffered severe burns to 95% of her body. She then developed another life-threatening syndrome. After 35 harrowing days, Rachel died.

Rachel Doran

Despite their grief, her parents Alan and Lisa remembered the kindness shown by friends, hospital staff and strangers.

Small gestures — finding a hotel 2 blocks from the hospital; arriving with healthy muffins and protein shakes; taking care of Rachel’s sister — sustained the family at a time when they were so focused on Rachel that they had no time or energy to care for themselves.

Since then, Rach’s Hope has provided real, important sustenance and hope to families tossed by the tornado of a child’s critical illness.

For example, a Westport resident who teaches in another town knew of a student in intensive care at Yale New Haven Hospital. Rach’s Hope sent Uber cards for transportation, and Uber Eats for meals.

“Family members have to eat and sleep well, so they can be strong for their child or sibling,” Lisa notes.

Another boy in that same district is being treated in Boston. Rach’s Hope provided gas cards to the parents, and covers their hotel bill.

Columbia Presbyterian is a great hospital. But there is no reasonably priced hotel nearby. The Dorans formed a partnership with the Holiday Inn in Fort Lee, New Jersey. They pay a discounted rate for families who stay there — and the hotel provides shuttle service to the hospital.

Though its reach is wide, Rach’s Hope’s Westport roots are deep. Lisa’s niece volunteered as a counselor at Experience Camps — the Westport-based program for children whose parent, sibling or primary caregiver has died.

Last summer, Rach’s Hope sponsored 2 children for the camp. They’ll send 5 this year. A week for each child costs $2,500.

To raise funds, Rach’s friends, their families and others close to her –including W Hair & Color, Rothbard Ale + Larder and Le Rouge by Aarti — are sponsoring the 2nd annual “Rach’s Hope PJ Gala.”

It’s Saturday, February 29 (7:30 to 11 p.m., Penfield Pavilion, Fairfield). Last year’s inaugural event was fantastic: warm, fun and energetic.

And it brought in over $100,000.

(Yes, you’re supposed to wear PJs. Rachel had founded her own pajama company, Rachel’s Rags.)

Rachel Doran (left) shows off her portfolio.

It’s clear she touched a ton of people. Her sister Ellie and friends founded a flourishing Rach’s Hope chapter at Staples. The school’s volleyball team hosted a fundraiser of their own. And Rach’s Hope is one of the charities receiving proceeds from this year’s County Assembly dances.

They all believe in Rach’s Hope. And they hope everyone who knew Rachel — and many who did not — will support the February 29.

The storm of a child’s critical illness will never go away. But with Rach’s Hope’s help, those dark clouds may part just a bit.

(For tickets, more information or to make a donation, click here.) 

PS: As a fashion design management major at Cornell, she was a research assistant in the Costume and Textile Collection, wrote for their blog, and became a curator. 

Her mentor Denise Green called her “the kind of assistant every professor, collection manager and peer dreams about. She was curious, determined, passionate, smart, kind, and had a great sense of humor.”

A central exhibition space — which housed her own project a few months before she died — has been named in her honor. Click here for more information, and to donate.

Ian O’Malley’s 1978 Single Malt “Experience”

Ian O’Malley is a busy guy.

He’s a realtor. He’s a longtime New York radio DJ. He and his wife Debbie have 2 young children.

So he can be forgiven — maybe — for forgetting that he owned a very special bottle of 1978 Macallan single malt whisky, worth thousands of dollars.

Ian bought it years ago. When his son was 2, he moved it to a top shelf because — well, you know kids. Over time he placed a couple of other bottles in front of it.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Last year, as the O’Malleys moved from Wilton to Westport, Ian discovered the bottle. He was thrilled, but had the same idea as when he first bought it: Save it for a special occasion.

That special occasion is now. But Ian won’t be drinking.

Not long ago, he told Debbie about a friend who works for Edrington — Macallan’s parent company. He raffled off a bottle; the proceeds went to charity.

And his bottle wasn’t nearly as exclusive as Ian’s. (The cheapest price Ian could find for his 1978 was $3,300 — from an Italian retailer who won’t ship to the US. For $4,600, you can buy it from a store in the UK that will.)

Ian O’Malley

Ian volunteers for a number of non-profit groups, here and in New York. He did not want to choose one to benefit, and alienate the others.

Debbie suggested Experience Camps. The Westport-based organization sponsors 1-week camps for boys and girls after the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver.

Kids laugh, cry, play, remember the person who died, or forget the grief that weighs them down. They feel “normal,” because everyone there has been through something similar.

When Ian was 12, his father died of pancreatic cancer. Decades later, Ian says, “I would have loved an opportunity like Experience Camps.”

A unique raffle needs a unique price. Tickets are $104 each — because Ian is a DJ on New York’s classic rock station, Q104.3.

They’re tax-deductible, Ian notes. And available by clicking this easy link.

The deadline is 11:59 p.m. Sunday, April 14. The drawing takes place at 9 p.m. the next day. It will be streamed on Facebook Live, from his house. (Where the lucky bottle still sits, unopened.)

Yet Ian’s generosity does not stop there. If the winner lives within 60 minutes of Westport, he promises to deliver it personally.

Just thank him. You don’t even have to invite him in for a drink.

 

New England Patriots Make Sara Deren A Winner

Whether you love the New England Patriots or loathe them, you gotta like this story.

Last Sunday, during halftime of the regular season finale versus the New York Jets, the team honored volunteers who make a difference in the world.

During every home game this year, they recognized a “Patriots Difference Maker of the Week.” On Sunday, each received a $5,000 grant to support the nonprofits for which they volunteer.

And guess who got a special $20,000 grant — sort of a Super Bowl championship for all Difference Makers?

Sara Deren of Westport.

Jon and Sara Deren, and their children, at the Gillette Stadium halftime ceremony last Sunday.

She and her husband Jon founded Experience Camps. Headquartered right here in town, the organization runs summer camps for children grieving the death of a parent or sibling.

In just 10 years Experience Camps has grown from one site and 27 youngsters, to a network of 5 camps nationwide. Last summer, 200 volunteers served 600 boys and girls ages 8 to 18.

Doing all the typical camp activities — and, guided by clinicians, remembering the loved one who died while developing the tools they need to work through grief — Experience Camp campers enjoy life-affirming, life-changing opportunities.

The New England Patriots Foundation receives hundreds of nominations for Difference Makers each year.

When the Foundation — along with Pats chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, and Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett — honored Sara on Sunday, it was a moment when, for once, Patriots and Jets fans could stand and cheer together.

Sara Deren is definitely a winner.

PS: So were the Patriots. They beat the Jets 38-3.

Color War For A Cause

For many Westport youngsters, summer camp is a rite of passage. They spend weeks in the woods, doing fun stuff and forming lifelong friendships in an environment far different from suburbia.

A few spend only 1 week at Experience Camp. But for them — and the 550 boys and girls ages 9 to 16, who attend one of 4 sites in New York, California and Georgia — it is a profound, even life-changing, time.

Experience Camp is for youngsters who have lost a parent or sibling.

Most of the time is spent in typical camp activities — swimming, arts and crafts, campfires.

But with the guidance of licensed clinicians, campers find opportunities to share their life stories with kids who are just like them. They learn that grief, isolation and loss is not theirs alone.

A week at Experience Camp is filled with fun.

Experience Camp is directed by Westporters Jon and Sara Deren. It’s headquartered right here in Westport.

The national organization has kept a low profile in town. But on May 20 Experience Camp holds its first-ever fundraiser. Money raised will keep camp free, for every youngster who attends.

The “Day of Champions” is set for Camp Mahackeno — a perfect choice for this camp-like color war/field day. Twenty teams of 10 to 15 people each (kindergarten through adult) compete in sponge races, an obstacle course, toothpick pickup contest with oven mitts, archery and others activities.

Points are awarded for spirit, fundraising, cheering and more. It will be a day of laughter and fun.

Of course, it’s bittersweet. Many members of the planning committee lost a parent, sibling or spouse at an early age.

Rory Murray’s husband was killed in the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Their daughter Aly was 5 months old.

Five years later, she attended Camp Better Days. The 1-week program on Lake George brought together scores of children of 9/11 victims.

Enjoying life at Camp Better Days.

Aly went back the next year. And the next, and next.

She’s now a Staples High School junior. She’ll head back this summer, for the final time. The friends she’s made there — the youngest group that began at the camp — head to college next year. Camp Better Days has served its purpose, and will close in August.

“This has become her family,” Rory says. “It’s a safe haven, where they can be and say anything. Aly moves heaven and earth to go there.”

As she thought about the end of Camp Better Days, Rory learned about Experience Camp. Immediately, she volunteered to help.

“The Day of Champions will help provide all the wonderful things Aly had,” Rory says.

“For kids who lost a sibling or parent, having a place to go is magical. There’s implicit trust, and lots of love. Realizing you’re not alone, that you’ve got other people to lean on, cry and laugh with, is so powerful. This 1-week escape is a gift for these children, and their families.”

Rory and Aly Murray

Rory, Aly and her family will be one of the 20 teams participating in the Day of Champions. Many slots are already filled.

But there’s still room for a few teams. So be a champion! It’s a “camp experience” that’s even sweeter than a s’more.

(The Day of Champions is set for Sunday, May 20, 9 to 11 a.m., at Camp Mahackeno behind the Westport Weston Family YMCA. To register a team, or for more information, click here. To donate without participating, click here.)