Happy Campers

YWCA's Camp Hochelaga has made a tradition of nurturing its island girls into strong women

by Larissa K. Vigue

A legend shared each summer among campers and counselors at Camp Hochelaga tells the story of how the camp was named for the Native Americans who inhabited the Lake Champlain islands. The tribe lived on the mainland, the story goes, but limited resources threatened their existence. To save her people from starvation, a young Hochelaga woman set out to find a new home. Crossing the sandbar, she discovered a land of plenty on the other side. Soon, the tribe was prospering in its new home.

Janet Francis, executive director of the YWCA in Burlington, says she's honored to be involved with Camp Hochelaga: "A camp doesn't stay around for 80 years without some kind of strong reason."

The legend parallels the history of the South Hero camp, according to Janet Francis. Francis is executive director of the YWCA in Burlington, which owns and operates the 30-acre facility. "The camp needed a home and a woman went looking for it."

Francis is referring to Rutland native Marion Gray, who started the Vermont chapter of the YWCA in 1919 and was instrumental in establishing Camp Hochelaga. The girls' camp first operated on St. Albans Bay, and then Grand Isle, before the YWCA moved it to waterfront property it purchased in South Hero in 1925.

A migratory and ambitious woman, Francis was born in California, raised in New Jersey, and graduated in 1976 from UVM with a double major in health and physical education. She then taught and lived at Burlington's residential Rock Point School with husband Terence (now Burlington's fire marshal). She returned to UVM in 1979 for a master's in education. After graduating, Francis worked for the American Lung Association's Vermont chapter until 1998, when she took the YWCA position. She says she's honored to be involved with Hochelaga: "A camp doesn't stay around for 80 years without some kind of strong reason."

Every summer from late June to mid-August, that reason becomes clear. Hochelaga houses hundreds of girls (515 in 1999) in one- and two-week sessions. In the process, it claims a national title: the last remaining all-girls YWCA residential summer camp in the United States. That's a badge of honor, because the camp continues to fill the need identified by Gary 80 years ago and published in a 1931 history of the Vermont YWCA: breaking down "certain inherited barriers to self-expression" that continue to plague females in our society. At Hochelaga, girls try new things without, as Francis says, "the fear of being judged by the opposite gender."

"It's a place you can go and just be a girl," agrees Deb Sawyer Jorschick, chairwoman of the camp committee and co-chair of the reunion committee. Though Jorschick didn't attend Hochelaga as a camper, her stint as counselor in the mid '80s served her well in careers in education and marketing. "I thought I was self-confident growing up, but I got there and it opened more doors. If you can do an evening program in front of a hundred campers -- make an idiot out of yourself -- then you can stand up in front of anyone."

"Camp is a way for girls to develop self-esteem and leadership skills, learn problem-solving, and take risks -- all under the guise of having a good time," says Francis. "They won't really know that's what's happening -- they come to learn swimming and be with friends and sing camp songs -- but 10 years later they'll say, 'I learned to do that at camp!' "

Like most non-profit organizations, the YWCA puts social service first and the bottom line second. The $375 per week fee covers Hochelaga's operating costs, but, unlike private camps, Hochelaga "is part of the Y's mission and has the organization to support it -- so the camp isn't here as a profit-making venture," explains Francis. "We don't want this to be just for rich girls."

There's little indication that it will.

In 1999, one-quarter of Hochelaga campers attended on scholarship, courtesy of $30,000 primarily from New Jersey's Turrell Foundation. Another $20,000 from social service agencies, churches, and community groups paid for children whose parents couldn't. The related issue of "at risk" children and its impact on the camp population is watched closely by the YWCA. "For some of these kids, this is a better placement than where they might be, but we're not set up to be a therapeutic camp," explains Francis. "Those kind of needs require more specialized care and staffing."

Kristen Kappler takes over as camp director this summer. Hochelaga plans to open on schedule, despite the loss of The Lodge (background). The 75-year-old building was leveled by fire May 11.

In addition to easing the financial burden, Hochelaga differs from other girls' camps because of its liberal arts approach. "We offer our girls a little bit of everything," says five-year counseling veteran Kristen Kappler, who takes over for departing camp director Deb Fennell this summer. While other camps specialize and are thus more competitive, Hochelaga girls take basic classes in five program areas: waterfront, drama, arts and crafts, land sports, and outdoor education. "We really encourage that you try archery, try arts and crafts. We have a pick-and-choose system that doesn't require a high level of prior achievement."

The camp property is ideal for the varied Hochelaga program. A once-shale-covered beach has eroded, but two long docks provide plenty of access to waterfront activities, including sailing, canoeing, and swimming lessons. Tennis courts are down the hill from archery and soccer fields. Arts and crafts take place inside Middler Lounge. Along with the Wigwaum, or "Wig," where musicals to game shows have been staged since the early days, Middler is one of two original buildings still standing following a recent fire.

On May 11, The Lodge, a 75-year-old structure that housed the camp kitchen, dining hall and offices, burned to the ground. "We do plan to open camp on schedule this summer," says Francis, who adds the camp plans to rebuild.

In the meantime, possibilities include setting up dining facilities and a field kitchen in tents, or cooking food off site and trucking it in. "It will not be a summer full of take-out fast food," Francis assures.

In 1994, cabins featuring built-in bunks with storage cubbies began replacing platform tents. Now everyone except counselors sleep in the cottages. "The Line," on the camp's south end, houses lower and upper mids: girls entering grades 3 through 5 and 6 through 8, respectively. Ninth- and 10th-graders get their own line of cabins on the north side, leading up to the Senior Lounge, a building where generations of last-time campers have gathered in secret to plan the popular senior banquet. A cottage for nurse Claire Molner, who Francis says is a "great camp Mom" and particularly adept at dealing with homesickness, completes Hochelaga's village-like atmosphere.

Overseeing the camp and its staff of 25 to 30 is the camp director. Kappler follows a long line of Hochelaga women who have taught by example. The most legendary is Florence Weld, who held the post for 22 years starting in 1939. Last year alumnae raised $55,000 to help renovate and dedicate The Lodge in her name. (An additional $70,000 from the Turrell Foundation and $25,000 from the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation contributed to the renovations.)

Camp director Florence Weld, pictured in 1946, held the post for 22 years starting in 1939. One 1930s Hochelaga alumnus declares Weld "ran a damn good camp." (Courtesy: Camp Hochelaga)

A Smith College employee during the academic year, Weld dressed in stockings and pearls but "ran a damn good camp when camps were struggling," says Janet Dike Rood, who attended Hochelaga from 1933 to '38 and was a counselor in 1939. "She was very caring and very firm." Nine descendants of Rood's are also Hochelaga girls, a tradition first suggested by Weld. "All of us remember her daughters and granddaughters," says Rood, "who went right on through from campers to counselors."

From all reports, Francis says Weld was someone who could "connect with those girls who needed connecting. She had this instinct to figure out who they were." That instinct is apparent readily in the new director. Although she displays the maturity and worldliness of someone older than her 25 years, the ebullient Kappler says children appeal to her because she has "a bit of the Peter Pan complex. I can't think of anything better than playing with kids for an entire summer. It fascinates me that I get a paycheck for this!"

From September to mid-June, Kappler is a special education paraprofessional at Profile Junior/Senior High School in Bethlehem, N.H., and directs the Stay After for Enrichment program for Littleton's North Country YMCA. Her respect for children, leadership skills, and tenure at Hochelaga made her the obvious choice for director. As Francis explains, "It's the blend of the art and the science. You can teach someone the science -- how to teach archery -- but you can't teach them how to talk to a young woman. Kris has those qualities." Since Francis is at camp only a couple of times a week, she's happy that Kappler "has been around long enough to know how to kick the dishwasher to make it work!"

Besides making sure camp runs smoothly and everyone has fun, one of Kappler's goals is "to do really well with our ACA visit." The American Camping Association accredits camps such as Hochelaga, which voluntarily submit their safety plans and program outline for a triennial review. "It's like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval," explains Francis. One major advantage of undergoing ACA accreditation is being listed in the organization's directory, which is how many parents find camps.

Jenni Lizotte took her 8-year-old daughter, Angie, to check out Hochelaga on open house day in June 1992 on the basis of its reputation locally. "We walked around with a really nice alum and just fell in love with the place -- the old buildings, the lake. We got sucked into the Hochelaga spirit!" Angie came home sunburned and knee-scraped that first summer, but "she looked great and had a wonderful experience," says her mother. Last summer was Angie's eighth and last as a camper. Jenni says her daughter, now 16, is "a little lost this year. The friends she made and the traditions were extremely important to her. It was a great home away from home."

Some of those traditions include retelling the Hochelaga Indian legend, singing songs, and weekly dances at the YMCA's Camp Abnaki in North Hero. When one is announced, "the girls are chomping at the bit to get ready," says Kappler. "They bring everything -- perfume, lipstick -- with them on the bus." But there's also a friendly rivalry between the two camps: Hochelagas still get feisty talking about the year the Abnakis heisted Rumrill, a moose head that hangs in the Wig.

Swimmers at the YWCA's Camp Hochelaga when it was located on Grand Isle, 1922. (Courtesy: Camp Hochelaga)

This opportunity to build confidence within a safe island retreat away from pressures in the "real" world was the reason former campers spoke out when the camp closed in 1990 due to badly needed renovations and declining enrollments, which many camps were experiencing at the time. Happily, the YWCA renewed its commitment to Hochelaga, undertook a capital campaign spearheaded by alumnae, and reopened camp in 1992.

Enrollments have grown ever since and the goal is to establish an endowment. Thanks to fiercely loyal alums like Rood -- who raised $7,500 to build a cabin in the name of a deceased camper and compiled a 1,000-strong alumnae database -- the inspiration and teamwork exist to make that happen.

Nowhere was that more apparent than at last summer's 80th anniversary festivities, attended by alumnae of many generations, including a 90-year-old woman from that fledgling 1919 summer. Jorschick says meeting other Hochelaga girls at these kinds of celebrations is like a homecoming. "We're instantly friends. There's just a connection you make."

Larissa K. Vigue is a free-lance writer living in Winooski. She plans to complete her master's degree at Middlebury College's Breadloaf School of English in August.