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8-year-olds dive into Cradle Beach

A tiny girl timidly slid into her counselor's arms, clutching a life jacket almost twice her width.

"Look it," her counselor said. "You're in the deep end."

"Yay!" 8-year-old Bianca Bonner said, beaming with pride.

And if Cradle Beach hadn't taken on what Executive Director Cara Stillman calls "an experiment," Bianca could not have ventured into the deep water in the camp's pool until next year.

For the first time since 1888, Cradle Beach opened one summer session to 8-year-olds. Previously, the camp had served children ages 9 to 16.

Stillman said the camp opened its first session, which started Monday and ends Tuesday, to 8-year-olds because camp numbers are lowest during the first week. The low camp population provided an opportunity to give the younger campers a trial run while filling out the camp's enrollment.

"We don't have a lot of people who sign up for the first session," Stillman said. "I think it's because school ends on Friday and camp starts on Monday."

Because of the new policy, 20 8-year-olds are attending the camp, experiencing Cradle Beach's mix of campers from both disadvantaged and privileged backgrounds and campers with disabilities, all in the same cabins.

"With different kinds of kids being together, they seem to accept differences -- and not just accept them but embrace them," Stillman said. "Out here, everybody's everybody. Everybody's the same."

Bruce Goff, 8, of Lockport, said his father used to work at Cradle Beach and recommended the camp when Bruce's mother was looking for summer activities.

"My mom came up with the idea of camp since she was complaining I was being too naughty," he said. "But I really wasn't."

While some of the 8-year-old campers said they had experienced periods of homesickness, Bruce had a different answer.

"I've had so much fun; I haven't even thought of home," he said.

Bruce joined other 8-year-olds who also heard about the camp through relatives. Alyssa Imerse of West Seneca said her cousin is serving as a pioneer camper -- campers ages 14 to 16 who help with the camp's daily activities, such as serving meals -- and always brings home enticing tales of fun at camp.

Alyssa said she had never had a friend with a disability, but she spoke of how cool she thought it was to befriend one of her cabin mates, who Alyssa said is missing part of her backbone.

"She can do everything," she said.

Amy Boutet, 19, a lifeguard who has worked at the camp for three years, said the 8-year-olds bring a sense of wonder to their camp experience.

"They're still discovering everything new about camp," she said. "For some kids, it's their first time away from home or their first time in a camp environment, in a pool. We've had kids who never really swam before."

Kids such as Bruce, who is learning to swim and said he doesn't swim much at home.

Suddenly, he remembers his friends in the water, and he loses interest in talking.

"Can I go in now?" he asks.

Moments later, he's dancing in the water.

e-mail: cthompson@buffnews.com

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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 Angola 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.

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