Flushing Out A Focal Point

By Ruthie Napoleone

Like most non-profits, our agency has learned to do more with less—to take what we have, mix it with the determination and creativity of our staff members and volunteers, and turn the impossible into reality.

Camp Jewell YMCA took that to a new level over the past 4 years as we embarked on a $400,000, multi-phase, waterfront-renovation project that pushed all involved to heightened personal and professional levels. The end result has created a new epicenter of the camp, expanded accessibility to waterfront activities, and moved the camp closer to harnessing the potential that the lakefront area has to offer campers and families.

The existing waterfront consisted of swimming and boating areas. Prior to the project’s completion, 25 percent of campers entered the water only once, for their swim check, during a 2-week session. Similarly, less than 50 percent of campers went into the water on a daily basis. The growing number of urban campers, many of whom were unfamiliar with water, particularly lake water, was hesitant to explore the waterfront. Many families and school groups come to camp, but some of the parents and group leaders are hesitant to go boating with their students and children for fear of falling into the water. Additionally, an on-going erosion problem between the swimming and boating areas required annual maintenance that never really solved the problem.

The solutions to these challenges came in waves, and were possible because of a wide variety of funding sources and circumstances.

Tt’s Grotto
The first phase, “Tt’s Grotto,” was built as a memorial to Taylor Manning, a camper who unexpectedly passed away at the age of 13. Her parents, Dean and Kristin Manning, are Camp Jewell YMCA alumni who met at camp, participated in our family programs, and sent both of their children to summer camp. Looking to memorialize Taylor, they met with Ray Zetye, Camp Jewell YMCA’s executive director, to discuss their options. The Mannings chose the camp’s dream project: a custom splash pad-type feature to encourage younger campers and non-swimmers to interact with the water.

Estimated to be a $1-million project, if it were designed and built by contractors, Tt’s Grotto would never have been an option without the help of the Manning family and their community of friends and supporters. Over 3 years, they raised more than $100,000 to cover almost the entire cost of that phase of the waterfront-enhancement project. Just as impressive, they showed up with a team of volunteers almost every weekend for 18 months, providing the manpower necessary to actually build the grotto. Constructed of concrete, it consists of three, 18-inch-deep pools of lake water, a waterfall, a footbridge, and landscaping.

Using Resources Efficiently
Norm Button, the camp’s property manager, oversaw the project, using his existing skills and expanding what he already knew. The staff and volunteers ranged in levels of experience and expertise, but we read, watched YouTube videos (some created by Button to train larger groups of volunteers), and learned as we went. Finding that balance between pushing ourselves to learn new skills, and at the same time knowing when to solicit help, proved to be critical.

One of the fundamental components to making the project affordable was managing without an outside engineer and project-management company. Instead, Button completed conceptual drawings that were reviewed by an engineer who gave us the necessary sign-off for the required local permits. The savings from employing only one contractor who was necessary for the excavating work, and the labor provided by our staff and volunteers were what brought the cost within the realm of possibility.

We opened Tt’s Grotto in May 2015 with a ceremony celebrating Taylor’s life, and the dedication of her family and friends who built the grotto. Since then, thousands of people have experienced the waterfront in a new way. Last summer, 90 percent of campers went into the water for more than just their swim check, and at least 65 percent were in the water daily. Previously, the waterfront was an area that people would visit if they wanted to swim or boat, but with Tt’s Grotto it has become a destination for everyone.

Access And Erosion
The next two phases of the renovation addressed access to the swimming and boating areas and the erosion issues. The work was possible, in part, because of a wide variety of funding sources that included private donors, grants from the YMCA of the USA’s Strategic Initiatives Fund, private foundations, and community partners. Engaging a diverse group of potential funders played an important part in helping us continue to move the project forward.

New, high-density, polyethylene docks replaced the existing H-shaped wooden ones that were in poor condition. Closing off the end of the deeper swimming area helped some swimmers feel more comfortable, and we also added turning boards for more accomplished swimmers. We replaced the rope swing and last summer completed a Wet Willie waterslide that has been a huge hit. Both serve as an incentive for campers to move up at the various swim levels. Accessibility to the slide and other parts of the waterfront are important, so we built a bridge from the road to the top of the waterslide, allowing campers and adults who are unable to climb the stairs to enjoy the slide.

To eliminate the erosion problems, we built 5,000 square feet of decking between the swimming and boating areas. This also makes it easier for campers to travel from one side of the waterfront to the other. The decking features fencing, lighting, and banners that recognize the donors who made the project possible. Finally, we installed canoe and kayak launches with built-in rails to assist people in getting in and out of the boats. This part of the project, completed in May 2016, has already seen an increase in use, and has encouraged even more people to spend time around one of the most beautiful areas of the camp.

On a typical afternoon, all of the camp is at the waterfront, wading in Tt’s Grotto, playing beach volleyball, boating, swimming, enjoying the waterslide, and all the area has to offer. It’s truly become the focal point of the camp.

Secrets To Success
There were certain fundamental components to this project that allowed for its success:

·         Strong camp and YMCA leadership. The idea for the project (and the approval to move forward) came from visionary leaders who operated with a focus on growth. Their commitment was paramount to the project’s success.

·         Willingness to take a risk. When we began the project, particularly Tt’s Grotto, we had high hopes of how it would impact the camp community. It took some time after completion to see how positive it was, and the project pushed the property and program staff to take on the new challenge of managing it.

·         Maximizing employees’ skill sets and learning new skills. We took what we had and what we knew as our starting point, not an ending point, and moved on from there.

·         Diversifying and engaging funding sources. Because we received gifts from a variety of sources, we had the added benefit of engaging more people in the project. We also had a wide range of donors, who contributed from $5,000 to over $100,000. Not limiting ourselves to seeking only small or large gifts helped move the project along more quickly.

·         The power of volunteers. Quite simply, this project would never have happened without volunteers. With active engagement, the volunteers helped with literally every facet of the project: planning, designing, building, fundraising, and celebrating its completion.

·         Flexibility with the plan vs. the implementation. The weather proved problematic and required us to re-prioritize other projects within the camp to keep this one on schedule. But if we were to do it over again, we would welcome those problems. Everything we could have done better and every mistake we could have avoided ultimately brought our team closer, giving everyone involved a stronger sense of accomplishment for having worked through the issues.

So, take the risk. Think outside the box. Engage the wider camp community. Challenge yourself to learn new skills. Be creative with soliciting donations. And realize what’s possible!

Ruthie Napoleone is the communications specialist at Camp Jewell YMCA, a Branch of the YMCA of Greater Hartford, in Colebrook, Conn. Reach her at 888-412-CAMP or ruthie.napoleone@ghymca.org.