Camp Susan Curtis: Offering the Benefits of Camp to Disadvantaged Maine Youth

As the summer youth camp season came to a close, energy was high last week at Camp Susan Curtis in Stoneham.

The camp, which serves economically disadvantaged Maine youth, has now ended its eight weeks of annual summer programming. But as the season concluded, campers’ enjoyment last Wednesday – from rocket launching by a STEM group to splashing in Trout Lake – was just a snapshot of 2019’s summer of fun and learning for a total of 465 Maine youngsters.

Director Terri Mulks says the camp – which offers four two-week sessions, free of charge – gives youngsters the opportunity to strengthen resiliency and participate in team building while enjoying traditional summer activities.

“Many of our campers have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) and camp provides a wonderful opportunity to build positive relationships, practice friendship skills, and have fun just being a kid,” Mulks says.

All those qualities were evident last week as close to 150 youngsters enjoyed their final days at camp. Late Wednesday morning a group of campers participating in STEM activities gathered in a small field to launch rockets they had built. A teenaged boy, wearing a Star Wars t-shirt and Nike cap, positioned a white rocket on its launch rod while about two dozen campers looked on. Rocket in place, area clear, the group counted down in unison, then watched as the rocket burst off the launch pad and into the muggy sky. Then, bedlam. Kids craned their necks and yelled enthusiastically as they peered upwards to see where the creation was traveling and where it would land.

Friendship and fun, learning and laughter.

Many youngsters return year after year. Camp Susan Curtis staff members are often former campers. The experience can be lifechanging.

“It’s my home away from home,” said 14-year-old Ethan, a participant in the STEM program. From learning meteorology to building catapults with mouse traps, Ethan was in his fifth summer at Camp Susan Curtis.

Alexa, 14, spent her sixth session at camp. Eating and “social rec.” – the opportunity to choose from a variety of activities – topped her list of favorite choices, she said.

Camp Susan Curtis is operated by the Susan L. Curtis Foundation, established in the 1970s and named for the late daughter of then-Maine Gov. Kenneth Curtis and his wife Pauline. When Susan Curtis died while her father was in office, the Curtis family and their friends – known as the Founders – created the foundation to address their goal of overcoming the impact of poverty on Maine’s most vulnerable youth. As the foundation’s website states, such circumstances “all too often can limit [children’s] perspective and become a barrier to education and long-term success.”

The camp offers programming for youth aged eight to 17, all of whom qualify for USDA free or reduced lunch and are referred by school personnel. Leadership training opportunities serve older campers, and an apprentice program paves the way for some youngsters to become counselors. Campers who attend the camp for four or more years have a high school graduation rate of 100 percent. About 80 percent continue to post-secondary education.

Second-year counselor Mariah, striving for a nursing career, says a top benefit of her experience is “seeing kids grow.”

“I want to be here for the kids, and give back,” she said.

“It’s all about the kids,” said another counselor, Makenzie, 18, who is embarking on participation in an AmeriCorps program.

“It’s better than reality,” said camper Alexis, 15.

Campers drew, read, and socialized last Wednesday afternoon. They played basketball and four-square in the gymnasium and cooled off in the pristine waters of Trout Lake. These Maine youngsters spent two weeks making friends, building skills, and relaxing in nature. And in keeping with the mission of the Susan L. Curtis Foundation, they were guided by nearly 50 staff members committed to helping them grow in character, confidence, and skills.

Throughout the year, the foundation will continue to pursue that mission. And come summer 2020, as in more than 45 summers past, hundreds of Maine children and teens will arrive at Camp Susan Curtis. Their two weeks will include the challenge of a ropes course, the satisfaction of making art, the pleasure of making friends, and the experience of unique personal growth. Camp is about fun. It’s also about developing abilities and creating connections. For many disadvantaged youngsters, Camp Susan Curtis makes those advantages possible.

Kristine Millard

About Kristine Millard

Kristine Snow Millard is a free-lance writer from Portland and a fan of all things summer, including camp. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of New Hampshire, a master’s degree (communications) and a law degree from Boston University, and, most recently, earned an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. She is currently helping to edit The Art of Outdoor Living, a guidebook used for Junior Maine Guide candidates, and is a regular contributor to the Maine Summer Camps newsletter. She has also contributed to the American Camp Association New England newsletter. Kris has written regularly for Maine Women and My Generation, both publications of Current Publishing. She has written features for the Maine Sunday Telegram, and is also a free-lance grant writer. A parent, she is also deeply committed to the subject of emotional wellness, and has seen how camp can foster whole and healthy kids. She is working on a memoir about living with clinical depression, and an essay she has written on that topic is forthcoming in an anthology to be published by Talking Writing, an on-line literary magazine.