ROME, Maine — It has been 65 summers since the first group of disabled Maine youngsters arrived at Pine Tree Camp on the shores of North Pond near Augusta. Since then, thousands of children and adults with physical and developmental disabilities have come to swim, canoe, fish, study nature, weave lanyards, tell stories around the campfire and giggle with new friends in the lakeside bunkhouses.
Now, in recognition of the 65-year milestone, camp officials are calling all former campers, families, counselors and staff to return for a Pine Tree Camp reunion on Sunday, Aug. 8.
“We are hoping to reconnect with families we have lost touch with,” said Erin Rice, communications director for the Bath-based Pine Tree Society, which runs the camp program. Judging from the response to a recently posted Facebook page for the camp, Rice said, there are lots of people in Maine and far beyond its borders who have happy memories and continuing connections to Pine Tree Camp.
“People are so hungry to share their love for this camp,” she said.
Among those whose lives were enriched by Pine Tree Camp is Shawn Arnold, now 51, who grew up in Portland and now resides in Oklahoma.
“They tell me I was the last person in Maine to contract polio,” Arnold said in a recent phone interview. For a long time, he said, he wore a leg brace and walked with crutches. In the summer of 1966, he was offered the opportunity to go to what then was known as the Pine Tree Camp for Crippled Children. Because his family was poor, he said, his stay was free.
“It scared the hell out of me,” he said. But he went and stayed for two weeks.
“Everybody there had some kind of disability,” he said. “They limped or they had lost a limb or they had no speech. It made me realize my deal really wasn’t that bad, that it wasn’t all about me.”
Arnold, now a lawyer, was able to regain strength in his affected leg and now walks without a brace. This past spring, he returned for the first time to Pine Tree Camp with his 7-year-old daughter, Lily, to participate in a Paddle for Pine Tree Camp fundraiser. The event was canceled because of a downpour, but Arnold had raised $7,500 anyway — almost enough to send five campers to camp for a week.
Sally Haggett of Bath spent the summers of 1954 and 1955, when she was a college student, working as a counselor at Pine Tree Camp.
Haggett said many of the campers at that time lived in social isolation, interacting with few people other than immediate family members and in some cases not attending school. For these youngsters, she said, spending time at camp was an opportunity to develop social skills and self-confidence as well as physical strength and health.
For counselors, Haggett said, the experience was equally valuable.
“We loved it,” she said, adding that the experience helped direct her career as an educator.
Another counselor whose connection to Pine Tree is deep-rooted is Mark Jenkinson of West Virginia. Jenkinson first worked at Pine Tree Camp during the summer of 1984. A native of Great Britain, he had just finished his second year of law school and was looking to come to the U.S. to complete his education.
“All I knew about the United States was what I had seen in episodes of ‘Dallas’ and in movies,” he said. “I knew that wasn’t the real America.”
With help from an international student job agency, he wound up at Pine Tree Camp that summer.
“I learned there that this is what real Americans do to help each other out,” he said.
The work, he said, was extremely hard: long days and nights of taking full responsibility for the well-being of each camper, regardless of the nature of that camper’s disability.
“That is what Pine Tree Camp does so well,” he said. “It won’t let the disability get in the way of the full camp experience.”
That philosophy was challenged a few summers later, when Jenkinson returned to Pine Tree Camp to work as the assistant boating director — this time in a wheelchair.
“In the interim, I had had a car accident and sustained spinal cord injuries,” he said.
A few returning campers and staff did a double-take.
“But camp is camp, whether you use a wheelchair or are up running around,” he said.
Jenkinson, who never regained the use of his legs, is now an attorney who specializes in disability law and personal injury cases.
Pine Tree Society Executive Director Anne Marsh says stories like these weave a rich tapestry of personal experience at Pine Tree Camp. Though much has changed over time, she said, campers still look forward all year to their stay on the shores of North Pond, and counselors and staff still develop deep relationships that shape their personal and professional futures.
Pine Tree Camp is a free program for many families, while others pay what they can. The camp has expanded to serve about 650 adults and children each summer with almost that number attending special programs in the spring and fall. All camp buildings are fully accessible, including a recently constructed treehouse and a new recreation center. An expanding network of nature trails also is accessible to wheelchairs and other users.
The Pine Tree Camp reunion will take place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 8, at the camp. The event is open to all former Pine Tree Camp campers and staff members.
For more information or to RSVP visit www.pinetreesociety.org or call 443-3341.