‘We serve’ camp thrives promoting role models

Sabrina Nucciarone
Review Correspondent

Laughter, sunshine, water sports, archery, arts and crafts activities, playing ukulele, horseback riding, candlelight ceremonies, late night discussions and maybe even a few rain clouds fill the days and nights while children dream in the present and hope for the future. All this and more is part of catching the spirit of fun while learning at Camp Anokijig, a place where kids can be kids in a setting that is like no other.

Many of the early decades of the last 90 years, the popularity and growth of Camp Anokijig in Plymouth was mostly due to its affiliation with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA)—in Racine, Wisconsin, and Ray Vance, then the YMCA program director in Racine. Vance had a way of selling the attributes of the camp to fulfill and sustain the dream he had to give elementary, grammar, and high-school aged children the opportunity to explore their childhood in ways living in a city couldn’t.

Over time, leadership changes, a drop in attendance, and needed updates in infrastructure could have been the harbingers of doom for the camp that meant so much for so many. In the mid-2000s, when the moment Camp Anokijig may have been lost to development, public outcry and a reprieve put the camp in the hands of its supporters.

Going strong, it’s been over a decade since those supporters came “out of the woodwork.” The current indication of success of Camp Anokijig is, in a measurable way, its waiting list of campers eager to join in summer fun. It is a testament to the life lessons that are learned by the campers and its motto, “We Serve.”

Telling the historic tale of Camp Anokijig is Darin Holden, who took over the duties of executive director in 2016. Holden’s association with the camp goes back 40 years, and in 2005, even after his 27 years in association with the camp at the time, “We had supporters we didn’t know we had,” he said. The possibility that Camp Anokijig may have been lost to development after 79 years of service to children and adolescents, there would be generations of young people not able to experience its uniqueness in the world of available summer camps. “Word got out that this is a place that should be for kids,” he said.

It was because of children the idea for Camp Anokijig began. Holden explained that in 1926 Ray Vance, the program director of the Racine YMCA, had the idea to get boys out of the city and into the country. Wanting to create a wilderness experience and also instill lessons to live with good values, to respect nature, and enjoy the fellowship of others, the early camps were on rented property at Phantom Lake for younger boys and Manitowish for older boys, and even then, for just a week or two.

Wanting to find a more permanent location so that the summer camps could be longer, Vance heard about the numerous lakes in the Sheboygan County area and a scouting party made the journey from Racine. “That would have been a four- to six-hour jaunt in a Model T, going on back roads. There were no highways then,” Holden said.

With the group stopping in Plymouth to find out what the area had to offer, the intent was to find a different lake they were told about. “Instead, Vance popped out through the forest and found this hidden gem that was the east side of Little Elkhart Lake.”

Even in the 1920s, camp was “successful off the bat,” Holden said. “With all the same [social] ills that exist today, the YMCA saw that and needed an alternative. Volunteers for the camp were doctors, lawyers, and other professional people.”

Though it was connected with the YMCA, the camp still did not have a name. There was a contest in Racine to name the camp and Anokijig (which in Ojibway means “we serve”) beby came the permanent moniker as well as the motto of the camp.

Vance continued to promote Camp Anokijig, spreading the word to his connections at other YMCA affiliates as far away as Springfield and Peoria, Illinois, and Indianapolis, Indiana. Throughout the beginning of the 1930s, Camp Anokijig remained linked with YMCA and was camp for boys though change was on the horizon. There was a woman who taught arts and crafts and headed a section of boys. “In 1935, she brought a group of co-ed kids, starting co-ed camping at Anokijig. The first official Anokijig co-ed weekend was in 1940,” Allison Scherer, Director of Development, said.

In Holden’s words, he said that Vance thoroughly believed that children could have an “incredibly fun time being good” and that having good role models are essential to sustain the success of the camp. Vance would promote the positive elements of the camp to professionals he knew and was able to acquire needed donations and funds to build things like a boathouse and mess hall—but not just ones of ordinary design.

In 1936, the boathouse was built to look like a rock castle with a lighthouse. Next came the dining hall in which volunteers began construction in 1946. The Western Lodge, named for Western Publishing

& Lithographing—famous for Little Golden Books—is the main building of the camp, serving as the mess hall with a kitchen for large-scale meal preparation and food storage facilities and a few small offices that house the administration personnel. Designed as a fort, reminiscent of those imagined in the days of old time radio Westerns like Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders, The Roy Rogers Show and Saturday afternoon matinee singing cowboy movies with Gene Autry, Tom Mix, and Audie Murphy, Western Lodge was dedicated in 1949.

“The concept, what Ray Vance wanted to create, was to take kids into a fantasy. You could say they were the originators of the free play movement,” Holden said. Free play, as opposed to a regimented schedule, gives children the independence and the freedom to make their own choices given available options.

There were lean years, too, following the tenure of Vance. During the 1960s campers still arrived, but a new wave of change occurred in the leadership of many private and public camps, as with Camp Anokijig. The position of camp director became a career and the idea of summer camp had to be reintroduced— to new, more savvy generations of children, those not necessarily connected with the YMCA. At one point, the number of staff outnumbered the campers.

Camp Anokijig had one “threat” of sale in the 1970s and the camp had gone through several directors. When businessman Jim Scherer came on board in 1985, Holden reminisced that Scherer said he would do it for one year to help get the camp on track; he stayed 21 years. “That was a long year,” Holden said.

For decades, attending summer camps at Camp Anokijig has been passed down from one generation to the next. It was the past successful experiences of Camp Anokijig campers and its purpose for being a beloved environment for fun and learning that saved it. Essentially, Camp Anokijig is now what it always has been: a place to present good role models in the year-round on-site staff and the teen-aged student-campers who have come up through the ranks that serve as volunteer junior staff, to have fun in a natural setting, and let the campers learn life lessons while they create their own schedule based on new and learned interests available.

Preston Tower, 19, of Illinois, has been a camper since he was 7 years old. Tower moved up the ranks while he was in high school and this is his third summer as a volunteer junior staff member. On summer break from Maryland Institute of Technology (MIT), where he now attends college, Tower said with boating skills he learned at Camp Anokijig, he is representing MIT as a member of the sailing team. With the goal of joining the Air Force after he graduates from MIT, Tower knows his experience at Camp Anokijig isn’t all about what is on his resume.

“Being part of the volunteer staff grew me into an adult, it makes you responsible. I’m thankful for that. I want to make sure campers have the same opportunities,” Tower said.

Within the fun, the concept of the free play format is that campers are learning life skills. They make choices, set goals, participate, and identify achievement. With the ratio of less than four campers to one staff member, supervision of the Anokijig community on the whole is never far away. Among the 110 people that serve in supervisorial roles, including professional paid staff members, the volunteer junior staff are those that have earned their way to their leadership position through their experience as a camper. Instead of paying for camp, their room and board at camp is paid for by scholarship. With about $100,000 set aside annually, scholarship money also helps multitudes of campers, as well. “We don’t want any child to miss a chance to experience camp for lack of funds,” Holden said.

At this point, one may wonder, what kind of kids go to a summer camp like Camp Anokijig? Open to all children aged 7 to 16, the socio-economic background varies. Promoting the camp at trade fairs and expos, on the Internet, and by word of mouth, Holden said there are children that arrive with their parents in expensive cars with designer luggage and those who arrive on camp buses with their clothes in a shopping bag. Assigned a junior staff member who lives in the tent or log cabin with them, the campers are designated by gender and age. “They all live together by grade level groups. The economic differences fade away at camp,” Holden said.

Scherer, who is the daughter of Jim Scherer, said the main market of campers come from the bigger cities in Wisconsin as well as Chicago, but there are children that come from California, Florida, Maryland, Washington—about 25 states in all—and several countries, like China, Dubai, Germany, Indonesia, and Russia.

Not uncommon to new campers, no matter their background, that the first day away from home can be overwhelming. Samantha, 15, from northern Illinois, has spent eight summers as a camper and this is her first summer in the volunteer junior staff program. “The first day is different than the rest of the days,” she said.

Familiar with the homesickness that a few campers experience when they arrive, Sam, as she likes to be called, said that she helps the campers create a bucket list of things they would like to accomplish while at camp. She has learned that redirecting the focus of being homesick to making a list of activities and the awarded skill levels that can be achieved works, because it worked for her.

Sam hasn’t yet thought of attending college or what she would like to study; she knows for now it is the positive attributes of the Anokijig community is what brings her back. “As long as I can, I want to come back to Camp Anokijig. My first step is to help the kids at camp,” she said.

Spending time as a camper in the junior staff is a conscious choice. When Preston and Sam, and others in the program could be working for money during the summer, they opt to make the lives of other Anokijig campers better. So rewarding is their experience that they feel something akin to being homesick except it is for camp— “campsick,” said Sam.

“I don’t miss home when I’m at camp. I missed camp when I was at home because camp is so much fun, outrageous fun, and I made friends,” Preston said.

Within the foundation of volunteerism, monetary and in kind donations help continue the scholarship fund and to fulfill the Camp Anokijig wish list. Holden says every contribution makes a difference in the lives of the Anokijig community and every donation has long-term significance.

For instance, one need is to redo a walk-path of paver stones that surrounds a portion of the Western Lodge—the dining hall for the facility.

They have the pavers they need, just a group or company is needed to donate their services and spearhead the project to completion.

Indoor needs include programming buildings for office staff, outdoor education classrooms, a winter kitchen, and a new dumb-waiter (the original from 1949 is still there) to accommodate the upgrades needed.

Another is fostering of one or more of the camp’s 50 horses during the winter and adoption of horses when they age out of the horseback riding program.

For all these needs, and more, from the time in 2005 when Camp Anokijig may have been lost to development, a group of passionate supporters were able to purchase the camp for $5.5 million.

Holden explained that there was a higher bid, but in the last hour, when the person was touched by how many people were affected by the camp and what a loss it would be to those who would never experience it, the bid was withdrawn.

From that point on until now, not only is the note down to just $2 million left to pay, additional programs aside from the summer camp and fundraisers continue on and many improvements around the grounds have been made—with the help of the corporate community as well as personal donations.

Throughout the years, Camp Anokijig remains true to its motto. “We are here for everybody,” Holden said.

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