South Athol, Mass.
This is Mattie Arkord's first time at summer camp and she likes it. She gets along well with the other campers. She enjoys hiking around the woodsy camp in central Massachusetts. She's not at all shy about joining in the sing-alongs.
Mattie is not a typical camper, though. She is a mother and a grandmother. And her delight in being a camper is just a genuine as that of any of her younger counterparts she meets around the campgrounds.
"It's the first time I've been to camp," says Mattie as she walks down to the dining hall. "I always had to work when I was younger, and I never had the chance to go to camp."
Mattie is attending Morgan Memorial Goodwill's Buss Inn, which is part of a complex that also includes a "fresh air" camp for Boston children. It is one of a handful of camps nationally that offer facilities for senior citizens. Church groups and social service agencies, such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army, offer retreats for senior citizens, but very few run camps together for both elder campers and youngsters.
The idea for Buss Inn, like most of the camps for seniors, came from involvement with senior citizens. When delivering hot meals or gifts at Christmas to both active and shut-in seniors, Goodwill workers realized that the elders would like to get out. The camp, which was started in 1970, is one way of solving the problem. Buss Inn can accommodate 16 campers over 59 years old at a time.
Other camps, such as a Salvation Army camp near Santa Cruz, Calif., host up to 120 senior campers. In Seattle, the city parks department holds three 3-day trips to a ranch outside the city for 50 citizens three years ago. It has been so successful that new facilities will soon be built just for older campers.
Armand Ball of the American Camping Association says that there is no official count of how many camps offer programs for seniors, but it is an "emerging type of program." David Hilliard, director of Camp Wyman, adds that, as many youth camps add or replace facilities, they are making sure the buildings are accessible to seniors.
"This is the knd of thing camp directors are talking about at conferences," he says.
Buss Inn, a farmhouse named after the man who donated it to Morgan Memorial Goodwill, is a charming retreat for the campers. Inside there are large fireplaces and single and double rooms. The most popular place is the large screened-in porch, with comfortable rocking chairs. When the younger campers visit, they scramble to get one of the relaxing seats.
Mixing the generations is important to all campers, Goodwill officials say. Once the initial shyness is broken, the fun begins. Mattie, Alverna, and Lillian sit in rocking chairs at Buss Inn while younger campers sing songs. Leo , who is also at Buss Inn for the first time, stands in the doorway and adds his baritone voice.
Soon the kids urge all the Buss Inn campers to join in. When Lillian says she cannot sing, one smiling young camper chides her.
"Everybody can sing," says Jessica, who a few minutes earlier was shyly hiding behind her own cap.
Although the Buss Inn campers do mingle with the younger campers, there are plenty of separate programs. A typical day includes some outside activities, such as swimming, fishing on a nearby pond, or taking a field trip. Schedules are flexible. Mary Kay Newton, who is a counselor at Buss Inn along with her husband, Dexter, has seen a transformation in some campers.
"We have had a couple of people who were recluses back at home," says Mrs. Newton, who has worked with senior citizens in community programs. "They just sat in their apartments and never came out. Out here they have come alive. They say they will never lock themselves in again."
When the campers first arrive, a few are sometimes irritated that they have to do so much for themselves. One camper did not like all the walking she had to do.
"They expect us to wait on them and serve their meals in the house," Mrs. Newton says. But that attitude melts as the week progresses. The same woman who complained about the walking ended up calling the camp a "wonderful experience." Some campers have come back for third and fourth seasons.
"Camp is a good place to do nothing," says Mattie. Nothing is hardly the word for what the campers actually do. On a field trip to the picturesque town of Shelburne Falls, Mattie stops into a sporting goods store and buys a pair of tennis shoes. She plans to take tennis lessons the last three days of camp.