Financially Aiding Integration

By Mike Byrom

White participants in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement adopted a fundamental belief that “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” The financial-aid program at Camp Sangamon and Camp Betsey Cox in Pittsford, Vt., is rooted in that time and philosophy. After 35 years, these small, independent, family-owned camps have each given away more than $1.25 million in financial assistance. At least half of that amount has gone to children of color, much of it to African Americans. The aid program’s original goals were to create an economically diverse and racially integrated community. At the time, it was assumed the effort would become less important as the larger American society integrated. But that assumption proved to be wildly optimistic. Although the laws requiring segregation have disappeared, the reality is that the U.S. has gone backwards on integration. In 2015, the majority of children who attend camp live a racially segregated life and attend segregated schools. The adult working world has integrated, but the society that children inhabit is more segregated than in 1970.*

Like many New England camps, both began in the early 1900s. The boys’ camp started on an abandoned farm in 1922. The girls’ camp was created in the same pattern on a next-door farm, by the founder’s daughter in 1953. Also, like many camps in that region, the two camps were mostly for white kids (with a few notable exceptions—two of Malcom X’s daughters and some friends attended in the early 1970s, as chronicled in Ilyasah Shabazz’s book Growing Up X). Both camps came under new leadership in the 1980s and immediately established the financial-assistance program to bring black kids to the camps. Our mission continues this commitment. Initially, the focus was on black/white integration; today, the diversity program includes Hispanic, Latino, and Asian, as well as refugee children. Religious diversity has followed as a natural consequence.

The new directors had the zeal of a late-1960s liberal-arts education, and a desire to change the world. The black population of the country at that time was about 10 to 12 percent, so we established that percentage as the integration goal for the camps. The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down in 1954, and the Civil Rights Act passed Congress in 1965. The resulting social upheaval didn’t come to New England until 1974 when Judge W. Arthur Garrity ordered busing for desegregation. The desegregation of Boston urban and suburban schools did not go well—to say the least. Yet, out in the hills of Vermont, the 1980s integration of our camps went fairly smoothly. Black kids came to camp, settled in without a fuss, and returned, bringing friends the next year. We were still a camp mostly for white kids but with a newly created 10-percent population of black children. We’ve been at or above that percentage ever since.

How It Works
Back in the 1980s, both directors were teachers, with no direct business experience. We established a simple, workable program, which has been basically unchanged for 30 years. We receive help finding appropriate kids from organizations that work with lower-income and non-white kids. We ask for the front page of IRS 1040 to establish income, and ask for a letter detailing additional, relevant personal information, such as single-parent households, child support, and education expenses. We set a “guideline” ceiling income for applicants and a minimum weekly payment from parents. And finally, we ask each family to make an offer of what they can pay. This is one aspect of the program that’s changed over the years. And, importantly, we ask friends and alums for contributions to the financial-aid program, and they have given $10,000 to $12,000 every year.

Following this business plan, we decided we would give away the equivalent of a full-season tuition income at one of the 12 cabins in each camp. Both camps’ enrollment had slipped while the search was on for new leadership, so the initial plan to give 10 percent of tuition was easier than it might have been had we been turning away applicants. Enrollment is steady now, and we still give away more than the 10 percent. Sometimes it approaches 15 to 18 percent (in 2008 and 2009, for instance).

Good Accounting Practices Out The Window
Our aid-camper weekly cost is wildly wrong according to good accounting practices. We start with the assumption that each camp is paying most of the bills anyway, so the aid-camper pays no share of the infrastructure costs—either new equipment or repair. We’re already paying the staff to run the place, and unless we hire more staff to cover the aid program (which we don’t), there’s no need to charge campers a share of that. The same applies to taxes, utilities, and administration. In fact, the only cost we attribute to the aid-camper is the per-camper cost of health and accident insurance, a tiny share of the liability insurance, and the cost of their share of the scrambled eggs, bacon, macaroni, pulled pork sandwiches, roast chicken, and the rest of the food. Everything else is paid for by the full-paying camper tuitions.

Non-white campers are not part of the local Vermont population, however. Boston and New York kids—and parents—need to be convinced that going off to live in the Vermont woods in a non-electrified, unplumbed cabin is a good idea. As noted above, a number of good organizations have helped us find non-white campers who were ready to join our integration effort (available on request).

The family-share minimum is $100 per week, and we like to bring kids for a three-week session, which fills slower than the two-week sessions. We give away empty beds whenever possible. The ceiling income for families not living in cities has been $45,000. We stretch that to $70,000 for city dwellers. We give some help to families making more than that, if there’s some need—extraordinary medical expenses, special-education costs, multiple siblings who want to come to camp, or employment problems. (During the worst of the Recesssion of 2008, we managed to continue aid for everyone who lost a job or took a significant pay cut.) Many families give significantly more than the minimum cost.

In the early days, we looked at the IRS form and letters, and set a tuition price for each family, but we didn’t really feel right about that. We then decided to empower the families to set their own payment offers. Each family offered as much or more than we’d been asking. We’ve been doing that for the last 25 years. We sometimes negotiate if we think the offer is too low. At the other end of the scale, with single mothers earning well under the $45,000 limit, we sometimes refuse a portion of the offer because they’re offering too high a percentage of their small incomes.

Against The Grain
Both camps are for-profit corporations, though the boys’ camp hasn’t made a profit in 35 years, and the girls’ camp profit is a very new event. We’re avoiding the loss of independence that comes with non-profit status. The IRS says that for-profits can’t give “financial aid” (there’s a sad commentary), but we can give any amount of discounted tuition we choose, so all the aid referred to here goes out as discounted tuition. Most donors want a tax deduction, so they give to a 501(c)3 or The General Breed Fund, (generalbreedfund.org), whose staff members are all volunteers, and whose only purpose is to send lower-income kids to camp. The Breed Fund passes along designated donations to any of the five member camps that get named.

People can’t change the world if they always do what they’re supposed to do. From the very beginning, we rejected the idea of building an endowment fund and giving away only the interest. We looked at how long it would take to acquire enough interest to do what we wanted to do, and decided to give away whatever amount we could raise every year. So we told donors that we had given all of that money away, and needed their help again. We said that every dollar that came to us went to bringing kids to camp. We asked parents to find a comfortable gift level, and we never badgered them to give more. And every year, they respond with as much or more than they’ve given the year before.

Robert Frost, in his poem “Mending Wall wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” We’ve always felt that way about an empty bunk. The issue is totally beyond any lost income. We run a camp with a wonderful staff and terrific campers, and we hate to think there’s a kid somewhere sitting at home waiting for the day to end and a parent to come home. As summer approaches, we do our best to match that bunk with a boy or girl who will join us for a few amazing weeks.

Mike Byrom is Associate Director at Camp Sangamon for boys in Pittsford, Vt. He is majority shareholder at Camp Sangamon and co-owner of Camp Betsey Cox. He can be reached at mike@campsangamon.com. His wife Lorrie and two children, Devri and Jed, are current directors at the camps.

* Kozol, Jonathan: The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America(2006).