For most kids, going to summer camp is a rite of passage. Swimming, hiking, campfires and making friends are all fun ways for young ones to spend the dog days of summer.
But not every child has accessibility to camp. Many summer programs are pricey, leaving children from low-income families without a place to go.
However, if you take a 30-minute trip north to the grounds of Harriman State Park on the border of Rockland and Orange counties, where woodlands and lakes abound, you will find Camps Lanowa and Wakonda. They are camps like any other; the only difference is a majority of the campers live or have lived in homeless shelters around the city.
Since 1989 Homes for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization that aids low income families, has brought 1,000 homeless children from New York City to camps Lanowa and Wakonda every summer.
“We primarily serve kids living in shelters but we also extend out to foster children,” Project Coordinator for the camps Sarah Herold said. “It provides kids with a break from shelter life and helps combat summer learning loss.”
The two camps are split up by age group. Kids ages 7 to 9 attend Camp Lanowa while those who are 10 to 13 years old stay at Camp Wakonda. This year, 600 kids, over the course of three two-week sessions, will attend camp, 106 of whom are from Queens.
“Our kids are just like every other kid,” Herold said. “We are all about providing them with a traditional camp experience.”
With a space like Harriman State Park, which has more than 200 miles of hiking trails, 31 lakes and reservoirs, camping grounds, beaches and an abundance of wildlife, it isn’t difficult to give the kids the traditional experience they seek.
“Each kid gets a bunk that they’re assigned to and every day they rotate to different activities,” Heron said. “They go swimming, sing songs and have three meals a day. Swimming tends to be a lot of the kids’ favorite activity.”
Camps Lanowa and Wakonda are not just important for the children. Parents also benefit from the program.
“It gives a break to the families living in shelters,” Heron said. “We give the kid a break by sending them into the natural world and it gives the parents a reprieve because living in a shelter can be a stressful situation. For them to know that their child is in a safe space really allows them to relax.”
Though the camps cater to kids up to age 13, Homes for the Homeless works with older kids as well.
“We have the team leader program for the kids who have aged out and are identified as having leadership skills, and invite them back to be our team leaders,” Heron said. “In February we had a pizza party and try to keep them involved. Parents have said they see such a difference in their child, that they’re happier and more involved, which makes it all so much more real and worth it.”
The last session will run from Aug. 5 to Aug. 20 but campers, parents, and others can revisit their camp experience by visiting the campfire blog, where Homes for the Homeless posts camp happenings, photos and other information.