Last Friday, 51 inner city campers matched with 51 Branford teen mentors wrapped up Camp Totokett 2016, following a week of sharing learning, laughter and caring that has no doubt changed lives for all involved.
For 21 years, Camp Totokett, a mission of Branford First Congregational Church, has brought inner city kids from New Haven out to spend five days by the shore at Killam's Point in Short Beach.
For many, it may be their first experience paddling a kayak, swimming in the Sound or tramping along a woodland trail. For the campers and their young mentors, the week turns into a life-changing experience bonded by trust and friendship.
Camp co-directors Rev. Theresa Borchetta and Tim Dinneen have seen it happen time and again. As Minister for Youth and Families, Borchetta oversees many mission projects at First Church. She's been at the church since 2005 and has directed Camp Totokett since that time.
Dinneen takes the week off from work at Fordham University (New York) to volunteer each year. Dinneen first signed on as teen mentor 13 years ago and has returned to volunteer each year since, taking on different responsibilities in ensuing years.
Campers can attend Camp Totokett from the age of five until the age of 13 and many mentors make an effort to return to re-join their campers through the years.
"This is the biggest group of returning mentors we've ever had, in my 12 years of experience," said Borchetta. "I would say about three-quarters of our campers are returning, and a quarter are new."
Camp Totokett relies on generous donations from individuals and sponsorships, such as those provided by the New Haven Register Fresh Air Fund, to assist with the costs of putting on camp. Expenses range from transporting campers to the site daily to providing food, equipment and extra experiences such this year's day trip Outer Island in Stony Creek. Volunteers from First Church combine with volunteers from the community to man Camp Totokett each year and add in extras, from fishing to crafting.
"It's really the church and the community, so it's a real mix," said Borchetta.
Among the most notable volunteers is the corps of Branford's high school-aged students who sign on as mentors. Students must have completed freshman year before volunteering for the role. Often, once a student gets involved, they come back to help out the next season, and beyond.
Each year, every single camper is matched with his or her own teen mentor. The two will spend every day at camp together, said Borchetta.
"It's a one-on-one relationship. That's one of the unique parts of this camp. It's one of the few camps in the country set up like that," said Borchetta. "It's all about developing relationships and breaking down barriers. You look at the diversity of the campers to the diversity of the students, and the socio-economic barriers -- it's about breaking those barriers."
For the campers arriving at Killam's Point, which is a beautiful peninsula jutting out into waters off Short Beach, "...this is the country," said Borchetta. "We've had campers who come here who've never been swimming; so we provide bathing suits, life jackets, everything."
It's a life changing experience for campers and, as Borchetta points out, "...it's life changing for the mentors. Many of them will write their college essays about their Camp Totokett experience."
While all Branford High School (BHS) students are required to fulfill many hours of community service to graduate, signing up to be a Camp Totokett mentor has become more than that. Borchetta makes a presentation at BHS in May each year to give an overview of what the opportunity has to offer, and what the role requires.
Students who show an interest are invited to a meeting in June, "...to make sure this is what they want – we kind of scare them a little -- and then, we give them the easy out," she says. "And for the ones who sign on, we have one more meeting before camp, to train them."
Camp volunteer Laura Noe, a Branford resident, is mom to a past camp mentor who volunteered for two years. She says the benefits Camp Totokett adds to the Branford community, for volunteers, campers and mentors, should not be overlooked.
"It's like a perfect microcosm for how the world could be," said Noe.
Close to 1,000 Branford teens have taken part in the counseling experience in the camp's 21 year history, said Borchetta.
Last Friday was the final day of camp for this year's group. There was kayaking, swimming, trail hiking, and plenty of extras (a giant inflatable water slide, a DJ and much more) leading up to the annual Talent Show. But as the day drew to a close, emotions were sure to come out, said Borchetta. And, while a lot of mentors will likely be back next year, Borchetta said the mentors are asked not to make any such guarantee to their campers.
"It's very hard. Mentors are taught not to make any promises they can't keep – just focus on what they had for the week. It's always hard getting the kids on the bus on the last day, because they don't want to go."
To make it a bit easier, the entire Camp Totokett community of staff and volunteers always sends off campers on the final day with the "Camp Totokett Wave," a giant group waving farewell as the kids depart.
"Camp Totokett is probably one of the most rewarding things I have ever seen in my ministry," said Borchetta. "When you see campers and mentors holding hands; when you see that something like race means nothing; when you see that there's no division... it's just very special to watch. And that's one of the ways it changes mentors' lives. All of the sudden, these kids aren't 'those kids in New Haven.' They're our kids. It's really special to see them develop that relationship. So I think it changes the mentors' lives as much as the campers' lives."
To learn more about Camp Totokett, or to make a contribution, contact Rev. Theresa Borchetta at Branford First Congregational Church (203)488-7201 or email Theresa@firstcongregationalbranford.org