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09/19/2023 02:32 PM

Brenda Partyka: Living on the Wild Side

For close to three decades, Brenda Partyka has been helping Old Saybrook’s children build their confidence and life skills through the town’s Wilderness Camp. Photo courtesy of Brenda Partyka

For close to three decades, Brenda Partyka has been helping Old Saybrook’s children build their confidence and life skills through the town’s wilderness camp.

Brenda can recall that when she was 13 years old, all her classmates were excitedly talking about going to a five-day sleepaway camp. Not to be outdone or left out, Brenda signed up for a 20-day program and was immediately in love.

“I was hooked immediately,” Brenda tells the Harbor News during a recent interview. It would be an understatement to say that initial sleepaway camp experience truly left Brenda with an impression. “I’ve now been the wilderness camp coordinator for 26 years,” Brenda says.

Wilderness camp has a history that dates back over 50 years, according to Brenda. The camp is for kids going into eighth grade who spend one week away at an overnight camp. The campers do various outdoor activities like hiking or canoeing, but Brenda points out that, more importantly, there is a lot of personal growth that comes with the trip. “We set goals before they go, and they learn a lot about themselves,” Brenda says.

In particular, Brenda says she sees a lot of growth in the kids’ abilities to develop leadership skills, a sense of responsibility, problem-solving skills, trust, and cooperation.

“A lot of the kids have never been away before or never been camping. It’s really gratifying to take the before and after pictures of them and see the growth,” says Benda.

As an example, Brenda says that the use of cell phones and electronics isn’t allowed, which can be hard for kids at first.

“I’ve noticed that kids don’t know how to talk to each other in person sometimes, and that can be a challenge sometimes being out here with no cell phone,” Brenda says.

The camp usually starts looking for potential campers in April — interested kids can put their names in with the Old Saybrook Youth and Family Services department. Brenda says that grants help offset the cost of the program.

For Brenda, the best part of the camp is seeing the reaction of a kid who doesn’t expect to conquer a challenge but does so anyway.

“My favorite part is after any challenge and seeing the faces of the kids. I work a lot on attitude, and for me, it’s something that can make or break you,” she says.

She adds that the camp is so much fun that the hardest part is not being able to share it with more kids.

“Turning kids away when we have too many campers — that’s always the hardest part for me,” Brenda says.

Besides the wilderness camp, there are several other avenues that Brenda has used to make herself known in the community. For the past three years, she has started the Fun Club for third and fourth graders in town.

“We let them explore and encourage the kids to have some input on what they want to do,” Brenda says.

The after-school club runs for four weeks starting at the end of September, and sign ups can be found on the Youth and Family website.

Brenda has also been a social worker in town for 20 years. Working with kids is something she says she had wanted to do for a long time.

“I think I always wanted to. I really started to think about it in grad school,” she says.

Brenda adds that while she was in grad school, she did a lot of work with senior citizens, and while she enjoyed it, she found she missed working with kids more.

“Kids have so much energy and innocence and love for the world,” she says.

In her spare time, Brenda can be found hiking, going on trips, or going to shows. She grew up in Old Saybrook and was a member of the Old Saybrook High School class of 1993.

Asked to name her favorite part of her hometown, Brenda says, “I love the community activity.”

“I love the cooperation between everyone in town, like the town, the schools, and the police department. The town is welcoming, the people are welcoming, and everyone just works together really well,” Brenda says.