This Westchester Sleep-Away Camp Offers Underprivileged Kids a Summer of Fun

The Department of Social Services and the Westchester Parks Foundation have teamed up for Camp Morty, now in its twelfth year of helping local children experience the joys of summer camp.


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Photos by John Halpern


Tucked into a section of Mountain Lakes Park in South Salem, Camp Morty is the platonic ideal of a summer camp: dining and activity hall, large open sports fields ringed by yurts full of bunks, and a secluded mountain lake lined with buoys and docks as a lifeguard keeps watch over swimmers and boating campers.

Many of the campers at Camp Morty, however, wouldn't be able to afford the stay or even pillows and gear required to stay at another camp.

“Camp Morty came about as a project between the commissioner of social services and the commissioner of parks at the time,” says Camp Director Dustin Hunter. “They wanted an opportunity to use the space, but also bring kids to camp that wouldn't normally be able to afford this opportunity.”

Brought in primarily from areas like Yonkers, Mount Vernon, White Plains, and New Rochelle, all of the campers come from foster care, homeless shelters, child preventative services, or otherwise receive some form of public assistance by way of Medicaid. “The idea was simply to give summer camps an equalizing experience — let’s give it to everybody in the county — so if you can’t afford camp and you receive some of these services, we will let you come to camp for free.”

The program has been a tremendous success. For the first time last year, Camp Morty, founded in 2006, received more applicants than available spaces — for the approximately 450 openings spread out over six one-week camp sessions, more than six hundred applied. “We used to work with social services and they would help identify the campers who were eligible,” says Hunter. “The Parks Department helped build the space, and community mental health also assisted us to find those right fit campers.”

He adds, “We’ve started to find that niche for enrollment [where] we need to think about how we grow the physical space of camp so that our program can grow.” Renovating a currently unused portion of the camp is high on the list of to-dos, aimed at extending camp stays beyond one week and expanding the age group to include older teens.

Brothers Tre (16), Jordan (12), and Jayden (10) Manning from Yonkers attended last year’s Sibling Week, when biological and foster siblings aged 6 to 16 can come join their family. “I didn't know anybody but my older brother who is nineteen now,” says Jordan. “It was kind of awkward, but once I got really use to it, it really bonded and became one with me like my second home.”

“When I first came here I was actually really scared, but after getting to do some activities I thought this was the best place in the world,” says New Rochelle’s Sidney Frazier. “My older sister started first, so she’s been coming for ten years. I started my seventh, and my brother’s been coming about six years.”

Often “aging out” of being a camper doesn't necessarily mean having to stop attending Camp Morty. Sasha Rasheed, a counselor from Yonkers, was a long-time camper before donning her staff t-shirt.

“I came for the first time when I was a little younger then eight. My first session was Sibling Week. I was maybe about six or seven. It helped me come out my shell when I was a kid, especially coming out of the system. I was always standoffish, I always kept to myself and I didn't like meeting a lot of people. Coming to Camp Morty they really push you to show you can trust people, that they’re not going to hurt you, that they’re here to help you and support you, which is something that every kid should feel because usually a lot don’t.”

“The idea is that Camp Morty is a constant in their life,” says Hunter. “No matter what other variables might be changing if you’re dealing with growing up in less than ideal circumstances, Camp Morty is a constant they can return to every summer. Now that we have campers who have the ability to return every summer, the next step is to think about how we get them their first job training experience, and beyond that, how do we get them their first job? Now the camp is a good mix of staff members that were former campers as well as staff members that are coming from all over the world — six different countries this year, seventeen different U.S. states — and they bring that culture to the campers and the camp community.”

 

If someone knows of a child they think would benefit from time at the camp, applications may be submitted at CampMorty.com.

 

 

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