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Camping program reaches to the stars

Karl Heilemann has been quietly leading this city's unusual waterfront campground for kids for 26 years.

This summer, Donald F. Miller Park, which aims to provide low-cost outdoor activities for local kids, is debuting a new feature that has got him talking: a detailed glow-in-the-dark constellation mural on the ceiling of one of the two big sleeping cabins.

"I think this is really truly one of the unique programs we have out at our place," said Heilemann, chairman of the nonprofit organization of the Nor-Ton Red Jacket Club that runs the 25-acre wooded park along Sweeney Street and the Erie Canal.

The 23-star configurations were painted by a professional painter from North Carolina, Michael Sebastian of Under the Stars, in February.

"Most of his work he does in homes in people's bedrooms and things," said Heilemann.

The painting, about 30 by 30 feet, shows the sky as it would look in November without light pollution, and is another boon to the camp park that runs without paid staff, 78 volunteers and a goal of encouraging local kids to explore the outdoors.

The campground, rented year-round exclusively by youth groups such as Scout troops, church groups, school groups and the summer day camp "Camp Spirit," was once known as Girl Scout camp Shady Hollow.

In the mid-1980s, the Girl Scouts wanted out, and North Tonawanda Boy Scout Troop 184 offered to take over maintenance of the state canal land long used as a camp.

At the time, about a year before his death, Donald F. Miller was the troop committee chairman. Heilemann was Scoutmaster.

"So Don was instrumental in obtaining the use of the property," Heilemann said. "Then shortly thereafter Don passed away. In memory of him, the place was named Donald F. Miller Park."

>What was he like?

He was a longtime Scouter and very active in the Scouting program and in the community and other things. I think he was on Ski Patrol. Sort of an avid skier. He was a postal worker. Most of his activities involved Scouting of some sort. His wife, Jean, is still a member of the club. Two daughters and a son: They don't live in the area actually any more.

One of the little stories I could tell you about. The Scouts were coming home from a weekend camping trip, and maybe two of them asked if they could stop by the doughnut shop to pick up a couple of doughnuts for themselves. He said that wouldn't really be fair.

>So he suggested the boys find a way to include everyone?

They went around and scraped together enough money to buy one doughnut for everybody.

>What was his reaction?

"Put your money away. We're going to pull the bus over, and I'll buy the doughnuts for everybody."

He had a sense of fairness about him. He was a principled kind of guy. But by the same token a giving sort of fellow.

>What are some of the campground's features?

We have two cabins and four shelters. Nature trails. A small fitness trail. A campfire council ring. That's where large groups can gather together and have a camp fire and sing songs.

It also has a crossover bridge. The Scouting organizations have a "cross over" ceremony from a Cub Scout to a Boy Scout. It is a 50-foot suspension bridge, and they ceremoniously walk from one side to another. A butterfly habitat. It's a fairly large garden, arched trellis, wood-chip pathway. A peaceful area.

>So the campground and park is well used by groups from throughout Western New York?

From Alden, Sanborn, Niagara Falls, Lockport, Getzville, Depew, Cheektowaga, West Seneca, Williamsville

Just about every weekend throughout the year, groups come in to use, mainly, our cabins and sometimes our shelters. They pretty much run their own programs. We have members that greet the group and orient them to the camp and use of the place.

You have to be part of an organized youth group. Scouting-type groups call us more because they're into the camping thing. Each of the two cabins hold 30 people. Or they can do tent camping. We've had groups as large as 300 come in.

We try to offer them some additional programs. Are they interested in canoeing? Are they interseted in snowshoeing?

We supplement what they do. So we'll arrange a time with them. Or teach them about geo caching: With a hand-held GPS unit, you find a hidden box. Then inside the box, there's a stamp to prove that they found it.

Then we have people that come and check them out and make sure everything's all cleaned up.

>You just held the annual Fellowship weekend for members of all the groups that visit the camp and do some volunteer work?

We want even the people that use the park to feel like it's partly theirs. They did things like put wood chips down on the trails. They might help spruce up some of the gardens. They helped install new section of fence along the butterfly habitat.

>What do you love about the effect of the park?

Some of those kids they go out kayaking for the first time. What they see along the way. Just a painted turtle out sunning itself on a log. That excitement that you try and create is really good. Those things will help build in them more of a self-reliance and avoid some of the other temptations, like drug and alcohol use. That's all part of it. I don't know for sure how many kids we've persuaded; 2,487 kids came through in 2011. Out of those, we'd like to think we stirred up some things.

>Can you tell me about something you've learned in your 26 years with the park?

I think I've become a fairly effective leader. I think I've learned to speak up and be able to try to work with other people. I think when I was much younger, I did have a little more difficult time speaking up and being the one up front leading the charge.

My style is not really to bring attention to myself. I want the people who I work with to know that I'm willing to put in the time and effort myself and work with them.

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Know a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Bruce Andriatch, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.