ALVIN HARTJE and Laura Stokes look forward to summer camp each year as much as any youngster does, but theirs is a decidedly different perspective. For Mr. Hartje, a Staten Island, N.Y., retiree, the annual two-week trip to the country gives him time to indulge his love of nature.
Mrs. Stokes, a Harlem homemaker, sees it as a chance to enjoy the fresh air and rustic beauty while sharing her skill in arts and crafts. ``It refreshes me so I can go back and battle the city life,'' Stokes says.
The idea of helping older people escape from the city - in this case, New York City - originated as an isolated instance and has evolved into a large-scale operation run by the Vacations and Senior Centers Associations, Inc. (VASCA). The New York-based organization serves as a clearing house for 16 camps in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, attended by some 10,000 older adults yearly.
``Our main goal is to help people who can't have a traditional vacation get away for a while,'' explains VASCA director Maureen Curley. ``The vast majority of these people can't afford other types of vacations.''
Prices vary from camp to camp; here, a one-week stay is about $150. About 60 percent of the campers in the VASCA program are subsidized to some extent.
The whole thing began in 1950 when a Bronx social worker discovered that many of her charges had never been out of the city. She persuaded a children's camp to provide facilities in the off-season, and took a busload there for a two-week stay. The idea mushroomed into VASCA, which finds camps that will offer space during the season, and raises aid money.
Mrs. Curley recalls a couple who met on the first day and wound up with a dinner date back in the city. She also told of an 86-year-old woman who discovered a new career in acting, leading to professional work, and of two sisters who live in different sections of New York and seldom see each other except at camp.
Touring a representative camp, the Vacation Lodge for Older Adults, one senses a happy, relaxed atmosphere. A reporter's arrival coincides with paddle boat rides; other campers swim or take rowboats out on the mile-long lake that adjoins the camp.
`WORDS really can't describe the significance places like this have for older adults,'' says camp director Andrew Katsanis. ``Many of these people really live from year to year for these two weeks.''
A number of the resorts, including this one, have children's camps at other parts of the facility, and some staffers have worked in both.
``It's a more light-hearted atmosphere with the children, but also more stressful,'' says Sharon Horton, a British student. ``You feel the responsibility 24 hours a day. Here it's much easier.''
The adults are left on their own, with planned programs only for those who want them. ``For me, the big thing is walking on the trails,'' says Hartje. ``My wife enjoys coming along with me sometimes, and other times she likes to yak with the girls.''
Nearly all of the guests interviewed mentioned discussion groups as a favorite pastime.
``We get into it hot and heavy,'' says Mrs. Stokes. ``We talk about all the current issues - abortion, drugs, alcoholism. We don't solve the world's problems, but we exchange ideas.''
Curley says there are a couple of isolated senior camps run by state parks around the country, but nothing on a scale like that of VASCA. There is also the well-established Elderhostel program, but that is much more of a classroom-oriented approach aimed at a different clientele.
``In general, [Elderhostelers] are younger, more mobile, and better educated - very middle class,'' she says. ``Ours is more of a social service thing. We're really looking for people who can't get out of the city.
``There's nothing quite like New York in terms of summer - the sense that you just have to get out!''
The VASCA camps vary in size, from 20 beds to 240. The average size is around 80. All use existing camp facilities but adapt them to older people by eliminating bunk beds and generally housing just one or two people per room.
Most of the camps are for healthy individuals with no special requirements, but there are two for the visually impaired, two for the disabled, and four that provide kosher cuisine.
The ages range from the minimum 55 up into the 90s, with even an occasional centenarian. Most are women; the ``typical camper'' is a 74-year-old widow.
``But each year I see more men,'' Curley says, ``and once we get them, they have a good time and usually come back.''