As a camper, Craig Donatelli used to be a quiet voice in the crowd during campfire songs at Cradle Beach.
Nowadays, he stands up front, leading the younger campers during their nighttime sing-alongs.
Donatelli, 19, and five other former campers returned to Cradle Beach last week -- not as campers -- but as apprentice leaders, assisting camp counselors in daily activities.
Cradle Beach is a summer camp program for children with special needs and children who come from low-income families. The camp serves children ages 9 to 16 during five, 10-day sessions on Lake Erie in Evans.
Before the apprentice leadership program was launched last week, former campers who outgrew the camp's age limit did not have the opportunity to take part in the camp where they created many of their childhood memories.
"I missed my friends and playing sports here," said apprentice leader David Rosenhoch, 17. "You missed me, too, right?" asked Donatelli, who said Rosenhoch is like a brother to him.
Donatelli and Nick Borricello, 26, agreed that the best part about camp was helping the younger campers.
"I love working with the kids," Borricello said.
Borricello hopes that working for the camp will open the door for future employment. "I want what I'm doing now to lead into a good career, maybe a job somewhere in the community," Borricello said. "I'd like to work at a day care."
The Apprentice Leadership program is being funded by a state grant through the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.
Some of duties of an apprentice leader include helping campers move in and out of their cabins, setting the table before meals, cleaning up and assisting the campers in arts and crafts activities.
Program director Sarah West believes the program teaches the former campers the importance of handling responsibilities while still allowing them to hold on to a piece of their childhood.
"The majority of the apprentice leaders are transitioning out of high school," said West, who has worked with the camp for six years. "This is a pivotal time for them to develop leadership skills. Their parents want them to be able to find jobs in the future."
A group of parents whose children were no longer able to attend camp and Cradle Beach Executive Director Cara Stillman worked together to get the program started, said Bonnie Brusk, youth services director.
"A whole bunch of parents got together to figure out how their kids could still be involved in the camp," said Tom Syzmanski, uncle and caretaker of apprentice leader Michelle Syzmanski. "[Michelle] loved the camp for years. Cradle Beach is like magic for her, her eyes light up whenever she's there. Now she is learning how to supervise young kids, and it gives her self-esteem. She tells us, 'I did this, I did that.' "
The program is open to former campers from ages 17 to 26 who are able to handle the physical and emotional responsibilities of the camp.
"They are so proud," West said. "They will walk right up to you and say, 'I work here.' "
>Cradle Beach seeking donations
Western New Yorkers have a long history of supporting Cradle Beach during its annual fund drive. Donations from the community help send children to the Evans camp during the summer and also help maintain the facilities.
Contributions should be sent to Cradle Beach Camp Fund Drive, Station C, P.O. Box 444, Buffalo, NY 14209-0444. Online contributions can be made at www.cradlebeach.org.
The Buffalo News pays for costs to oversee the annual fund drive, so all contributions go directly to help the disabled and disadvantaged campers who attend Cradle Beach.