Share this article

print logo

Society of St. Vincent de Paul welcomes its last summer of campers

Ray Wassinger first heard at a meeting.

Catherine Jagodzinski received a phone call.

Connor and Kennedy Brace were told at the dinner table.

Summer camp was closing.

The camp, tucked away on a 15-acre property with 12,000 feet of beachfront in Angola, has been run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for nearly 90 years. It’s known simply as “SVC” to the 60,000 campers who have swum in the lake, slept in the cabins and called the place home for the summer.

Although the place has been treasured by those who come back year after year, attendance numbers have been dwindling for years.

It’s been 15 years since a bus full of kids arrived from Lackawanna and eight since a bus came from Olean. The three to four buses that brought kids from Buffalo 20 years ago have been reduced to one.

After years of consultants’ recommendations, updates and improvements, the board of directors decided this summer’s approximately 200 campers will be the last.

When Wassinger heard the news from society CEO and Executive Director Mark Zirnheld last month, he was shocked but understood.

“Rationally, I can see why that decision was made,” he told Zirnheld at the time. “Emotionally, it will hurt for a while.”

[Gallery: St. Vincent de Paul Camp's last summer]

On the last first day of camp, dads drive trucks up the sandy road and moms walk their kids inside the main building. They’re greeted by staff who were once in their shoes – anywhere from three to 40 years ago.

One girl with dark curly hair walks up to the sign-in table with her mom and says her name.

“I was here last year,” she says.

A 16-year-old girl who will work in the kitchen jumps over to greet her.

“I remember you!” she says and takes her toward her cabin.

Most of the kids, ranging from ages 8 to 13, have been here before or have sisters, brothers, mothers or fathers who have. Only about a third of the 30 kids coming for this week’s pirate-themed session are new.

Catherine Jagodzinski came when she was 8, following in the footsteps of her sister and her mom. That was 23 years ago. Now she’s a lifeguard.

Jagodzinski, like many of the other staffers, worked her way through the camp’s leadership steps. You’re a camper until you’re 13, then a camper’s helper, then waiter or waitress, then counselor and then senior staff member.

Ray Wassinger, camp director, left, and Mark Zirnheld, CEO St Vincent de Paul at the St. Vincent de Paul summer camp, in Angola, N.Y.,on Sunday July 10, 2016, this the last season for the camp, which began nearly 90 years ago but is ending because of declining enrollment and finances. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Ray Wassinger, camp director, left, and Mark Zirnheld, CEO of St. Vincent de Paul, at the camp in Angola. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Ray Wassinger, the camp’s director, met his wife, Donna, at the camp in 1970.

Donna Wassinger said not much has changed about the camp since she began as a camper in the 1960s. They’ve added a pool, updated the main building and added an art room. But it’s a camp run on tradition.

They still sing camp songs, play the same games and go to the lake. These are memories that last a lifetime.

When Jagodzinski hears some songs on the radio, she sings the camp-themed lyrics she and other campers wrote years ago. More than 20 years later, she can sing every line to their camp-themed Queen medley, “Grease” song or Vanilla Ice song they wrote to tease the boys.

The traditions have been passed down summer by summer, throughout the decades.

About the time of the Depression, the camp was started as a health camp, where the main goal was to have kids come and gain weight. A successful week was when a kid left 10 pounds heavier.

It changed directions awhile later, becoming a camp for people in the community “in tough straits.” Often, members working in other Society of St. Vincent de Paul programs recommend the camp to families in the area.

The parents get a week away from the kids, and kids get one in nature. It’s a week where “kids get to be kids,” according to Zirnheld.

Camp staffers focus the programming on giving campers “camp spirit,” built on the tenets of motivation, respect, teamwork, effort, common sense, responsibility, problem-solving and caring. They want kids to learn to respect themselves, others and nature.

The camp’s heydays were in the 1960s and ’70s, when it was at full capacity – 100 kids per week.

Times have changed. The first session this summer has 30.

Zirnheld said people just don’t want to send their kids away overnight as often. More and more kids are attending day camps or specialized camps for subjects like theater or science.

But those who made their way back this summer are heartbroken it’ll be their last.

Summer campers get evaluated on their swimming skills on the first day at St. Vincent de Paul summer camp, in Angola, N.Y.,on Sunday July 10, 2016, it will be the last season for the summer camp, which began nearly 90 years ago but is ending because of declining enrollment and finances . (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Summer campers get evaluated on their swimming skills on the first day at St. Vincent de Paul summer camp. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Connor Brace, 14, has been coming for the past four or five years. His favorite memories are of playing dodgeball at the camp.

His 11-year-old sister, Kennedy, cried when she recalled hearing the camp was closing. She wears one of the tie-dye SVP shirts she and the other campers make every year, this one a pink, purple and blue style.

She was looking forward to becoming a camp helper in a few years.

“It’s sad to think of all the kids who won’t experience this,” said Jagodzinski, who spent three quarters of her life at the camp.

No one was happy about the decision, Zirnheld said, but it was time to direct the society’s resources elsewhere. It costs approximately $150,000 to run the camp every summer. One summer’s worth of food for the kids equals the cost of a year’s worth of food at the society’s daily kitchen.

Zirnheld said they’re passionate about the camp but it’s time to ask if this is the best use of resources.

“It was in 1930 when it started,” he said. “It’s still a great program, but does it really help families today?”

Zirnheld said the future of the property is unclear as of yet. The camp is currently working with others in the community to recreate the camp programming in families’ own neighborhoods, rather than on the campgrounds.

After all, the society has been around since 1847.

“We’ve been taking care of people for 70 years before the camp program,” Zirnheld said. “I would guess we’re going to be around for another 70 still taking care of people.”

At the end of each session until Aug. 13, the last day of camp, the counselors will light the candles standing for each tenet of camp spirit. Then, they’ll blow them out in the direction of their campers as a symbol of bestowing camp spirit on the kids long after they leave the campgrounds.

Then, as they have for decades, they’ll tell the campers their parting words of wisdom.

“Don’t let the light go out.”


There are no comments - be the first to comment