Camp Susan Curtis: Offering Transformational Experiences, Tuition-Free

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Situated on 100 acres of conservation land and a lake all to itself, a camp in Maine is changing youngsters’ lives by the thousands – completely tuition-free. For more than 40 years, Camp Susan Curtis in Stoneham has hosted economically disadvantaged children from all over the state. Kids participate in traditional camp activities, to be sure, but in putting its mission to work, Camp Susan Curtis is also giving kids a whole new perspective on their path ahead.

The Susan L. Curtis Charitable Foundation – and Camp Susan Curtis – were established in the 1970s after the death of Susan L. Curtis, the daughter of then-Governor Kenneth M. Curtis and his wife Pauline B. Curtis. The Curtis family and those close to them created the foundation as a lasting memory to Susan Curtis – to serve Maine’s youth and to help address the effects of poverty. Today, Camp Susan Curtis serves 500 youngsters each summer in pursuit of its goal to develop character, build confidence, and hone skills. Campers come back year after year.  And, according to the foundation’s Executive Director Melissa Cilley, those youngsters are graduating from high school and attending post-secondary programs at a rate far surpassing the average rate of like-resourced youngsters.

Campers, boys and girls aged eight to 17 who qualify for free or reduced lunch, are referred by school personnel, including guidance counselors and social workers. For a two-week session on the shores of Trout Lake, these youngsters have the opportunity to put aside the stressors which often affect them, says Cilley. At camp, with mentoring staff who understand those stressors, kids are able to have a traditional camp experience while at the same time “learning specific skills they need to become independent, contributing citizens,” Cilley says.

Self-confidence. Goal setting. Effective communication. Collaboration. Cilley says each of these qualities and skills are key to campers’ success. And they are woven into life at camp, she says. “We are a youth development program in a residential camp setting,” she says.

Cilley says the camp also seeks to have a year-round presence for kids, “all designed to keep them connected.”

“We are a really important support system for them,” she says.

The outcomes are there. Nearly 100 percent of youngsters who attend the camp for four or more years graduate from high school, Cilley says. Similarly, about eight of 10 such campers go on to attend post-secondary educational programs. The figures for similarly-resourced youngsters are significantly lower, she says.

Campers also come back, Cilley says. “About 60 percent return year after year,” she says. “And it’s cool because it is supported by Mainers. All of these youth are supported and sponsored by Maine people,” she says. “And it’s always been that way.”

The camp was recognized in 2016 for its efforts.  The American Camp Association awarded its Eleanor P. Eells Award for Program Excellence to the camp, citing “compassionate role models who create an inclusive, positive camp culture and immerse program participants in experiential learning through an intentional, inquiry-based curriculum.”

The “transformational” quality of Camp Susan Curtis takes place by opening the “aperture” of kids’ lives, Cilley says.

“If your life experience is a very tight aperture, it’s all you know. That’s all you look toward because you don’t know anything else out there for you to aspire to,” Cilley says. “We’re blowing that aperture wide open.”

One obstacle kids face is the perception that their income level limits opportunity, Cilley says. “There’s a lot of messaging for this demographic.” For example, she says, one former camper, who now holds a doctoral degree, was told that “welfare kids don’t go to college.”

The barriers erected by adverse childhood experiences – financial constraints, or family stressors, or both – exist to allow kids to feel safe, Cilley says. But when kids come to camp, the walls they have built “can finally come down.”

“They see how it feels to live with success.

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