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CRADLE BEACH CAMPERS IGNORE THE CALENDAR AS THEY CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS FIVE MONTHS EARLY

On a hot and humid Sunday morning in July, 200 disabled and disadvantaged children between the ages of 9 and 11 crawled out of their bunks at Cradle Beach Camp in Angola to begin a daylong Christmas celebration of life, love and hope.

At 8 a.m., before breakfast -- in wheelchairs, on crutches and on foot -- they gathered at the camp swimming pool, which had been filled with large green and red ice cubes by Bonnie Brusk, pool and beach activities director, and her staff, for the first activity of the day -- a polar bear swim.

And then, Christmas Day began.

"We've had a Christmas Day in July celebration at Cradle Beach for as long as anyone can remember," said Judy Anthony, a Cradle Beach program director who worked on the project with co-director Jolene Rice.

Ms. Anthony has been at Cradle Beach every summer for the past 13 years.

"I really feel as though I've grown up here," she said.

Her father, Jack Anthony, had been Cradle Beach Camp director for almost 40 years before stepping down this year. His successor, Herb Tolbert, 50, began as a Cradle Beach camper when he was 11 and has worked at the camp every summer since.

Ms. Anthony, a graduate of Buffalo State College, is a teacher with the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District.

"This event is a real production for us," she said.

"On Saturday evening, which we call Christmas Eve, the kids gathered in the Jim Kelly House dining hall after dinner, and we had a brief non-denominational service," she said. "And then the campers began creating large posters and paintings around the theme 'the 12 days of Christmas,' with Christmas music playing in the background.

"Their work was used to help decorate the hall after snacks and cookies and singing Christmas songs, and then sending them off to bed about 9 p.m."

Before the campers left the Jim Kelly house, Bonnie Brusk and her crew were busy filling small paper sacks with sand and candles. When the children filed out for the walk back to their cabins, they found the pathways lined with lit candles to show them the way.

While the campers were snuggled in their bunks, with visions of another day at Cradle Beach in their heads, the Cradle Beach "elves" -- staff and Pioneer Campers not assigned to the cabins -- went into the adjoining woods and cut down a Christmas tree.

They hauled the tree back to the Kelly House, and the staff spent part of the night decorating it with lights, bulbs and old decorations commemorating the camp's 109-year history.

After the polar bear swim, the breakfast bell rang out. The children of Cradle Beach then went to the dining room for a first look at their special Christmas.

"You would have to be here to understand the feeling behind the eyes of every little camper," Ms. Brusk said. "The feeling is a tangible thing, and it touches everyone, including the staffers." The day included a traditional Christmas dinner, with turkey, mashed potatoes, vegetables and homemade pies.

"After dinner, we all exchanged gifts," Ms. Anthony said. "Each cabin had the responsibility of doing something for another cabin and its campers, as a gift to them."

Cradle Beach staffers dressed up as elves and joined a volunteer Camp Santa in handing out gifts to each of the children.

A lot of children have their only real Christmas at Cradle Beach.

"It is the spirit of Cradle Beach that moves you, and it is the same spirit that brings all of us closer together each year," Ms. Anthony said.

Over the years, Cradle Beach has created wonderful, unforgettable memories for thousands of disabled and disadvantaged children. To continue doing so, the camp needs your help.

Cradle Beach hopes to bring 900 children to the facility for one of five 10-day sessions. That will cost the camp $500 per child, and the money must come from the generosity of its community supporters.

With your help, The Buffalo News aims to raise the funds needed to send 200 of those 900 youngsters to Cradle Beach.

At the end of the campaign, The Buffalo News will publish the names of every contributor to the fund in a special section.

Contributions can be sent to Cradle Beach Camp Spring Fund Drive, Station C Post Office, Box 444, Buffalo 14209-0444.

Since administrative costs for the fund are absorbed by The Buffalo News, every penny goes to Cradle Beach and the campers.

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