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February 15, 2019  |  

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A volunteer since the age of 15 who is now in his 16th year of volunteering, Tim Dinneen (right) says the Camp Totokett experience brings volunteers back year after year to work with campers during a magical week at the site, located at First Congregational Church’s Killam’s Point property. Photo courtesy of Tim Dinneen

A volunteer since the age of 15 who is now in his 16th year of volunteering, Tim Dinneen (right) says the Camp Totokett experience brings volunteers back year after year to work with campers during a magical week at the site, located at First Congregational Church’s Killam’s Point property. (Photo courtesy of Tim Dinneen )

A Life-Changing Experience at Camp Totokett

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Tim Dinneen was 15 years old when he first volunteered as a mentor for Camp Totokett in Branford at Killam’s Point. To date, he’s given 16 years, one week each year, including 13 seasons (and counting) as co-camp director, leading other local teens on their mentoring journey with campers.

In a poignant turn of events, this summer was also Tim’s first at Camp Totokett without the man who inspired him to volunteer in the first place, Ed Ochman.

A colleague of Tim’s mother at the former Hospital of St. Raphael, Ochman recruited Tim to the camp years ago.

“His mix of dedication and full-on quirkiness kind of sums up camp’s personality. It’s why we all come back. It’s at least as fun for us as it is the kids,” says Tim.

Since the first camp was founded by Barbara Colley in 1996, Ochman had been a supporter, returning every year to teach kids how to fish. He also quietly contributed to Camp Totokett monetarily, Tim notes. As a mission project of Branford First Congregational Church, Camp Totokett relies on generous monetary donations and is always seeking support. The camp is funded in part by the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation, Fresh Air Fund of the New Haven Register, Woman’s Seamen’s Friend Society of Connecticut, and private donations such as Ochman’s.

“Ed was so incredibly humble. He was just another guy that was there who was so crucial to camp. He just loved the kids and loved the people, and is absolutely the reason why I am still there,” says Tim.

With assistance from many members of First Church’s congregation, as well as the wider community and a cadre of local teen mentors, Camp Totokett is a free, one-week camp for children aged 6 through 13 from families with one or more members infected with HIV/AIDS. They arrive from urban settings to experience care-free summer days at the camp’s waterfront enclave in Short Beach. Many return year after year.

Ochman, who passed away about three months before the 22nd Camp Totokett gathered this past summer, was known as “Mr. Ed” to many campers, says Tim, who shares the role of camp director with the Rev. Theresa Borchetta, the camp’s link to First Church.

Tim grew up in Hamden and came to Camp Totokett as a teen seeking community service credit. Currently, high school students who have completed grade 9 are eligible to apply to be mentors.

“My mother worked with Ed, and he was always talking about camp. He said, ‘Tim should do Camp Totokett for a week,’” Tim recalls.

That simple connection went on to shape Tim’s life.

“What I studied and what I’ve done professionally is definitely due to my Camp Totokett experience. I earned my undergraduate and graduate degrees in theology; I did spring break alternative Global Outreach—it’s just something you feel you have to do, just like getting up in the morning and eating breakfast,” says Tim, who now works as a member of the Corporate Social Responsibility team for Bank of New York (BNY) Mellon.

“It’s a fascinating field—15 years ago, a lot of these jobs didn’t exist,” he says. “It’s an awesome thing. We have 50 people in our group at BNY Mellon. I feel so fortunate to be doing this work,” says Tim, who also worked in philanthropy for Fordham University.

Since 1996, close to 1,000 Branford teens have taken part in the Camp Totokett mentoring experience. Each year, every single camper is matched with his or her own teen mentor. The two spend every day at camp in a one-on-one relationship that quickly breaks down socio-economic and other barriers, and develops empathy. It’s quite a tall order, and Tim is there to help.

“These mentors are 14, 15, 16 years old. It’s a taxing week. It’s a big ask. I want to create as supportive an environment as I can for mentors, because I’ve walked in their shoes.”

Also, like many mentors, “I wrote my college essay about my camp experience,” says Tim. “That’s something we often hear from our mentors, because it’s such a moving, life-changing experience. Imagine a kid only 18 or so years on this earth, meeting someone out of their circle of life they would have never otherwise met on their own.”

Tim can easily remember what he wrote about his Camp Totokett experience, because it was an experience he will never forget.

“We used to give [campers] disposable cameras. They’d develop the photos and write in journals; little memories from their week,” says Tim. “My kid was taking pictures of the ground, his feet...then we’d get to lunch and he’s taking all these pictures of the kitchen, his lunch plate, his food. And I kind of scolded him for wasting his film, and he said, ‘I have to take these pictures for my mom—she’s never going to believe I had this much food to eat in one day!’ As a kid, I had no concept that’s a concern he faced every day. It haunts you. It makes you aware of other people’s reality.”

Tim says every teen mentor who opens their heart to helping Camp Totokett likely experiences a similar moment of realization.

"If all goes well, you can't have a Camp Totokett experience and not be made so deeply aware of the lives others have lived, or the privilege that you have; and just ignore it and walk away, and go about your daily life."

For the campers, it’s a respite from daily stress. It’s also a very active time. Camp offers activities, arts and crafts, fishing, kayaking, swimming, games, trail hikes, and even a daily music program.

“For us, it’s just about being a kid, and so much of therapeutic nature of camp comes from being in this beautiful place. It’s the first time a lot of these kids are swimming or hiking in the woods. I often think if camp happened anywhere else, would it have the same power?,” says Tim. “Not only, miraculously, are these 40 to 50 high schoolers and adults able to take a week off from their lives to volunteer and marshal the resources for camp, but to just be all together, in this beautiful place, is really what makes Camp Totokett special. You see it on the kids’ faces. When they walk down that driveway and turn the corner, they’re processing a place and location they’ve only seen in movies.”

This year was an exceptional year for Camp Totokett as it broadened its reach to include, for the first time, 10 campers from refugee families from the New Haven area. This time, it was Tim’s turn to learn something from one of his mentors, a young man of 15 who spoke the same language as two of the refugee children, who spoke no English.

“He was such a godsend,” says Tim. “One of them, a young girl, was fishing near Ed’s area, and she slipped and cut her wrist, which is significantly scarier when you can’t communicate with the nurse. In [the mentor] swooped, serves as translator, helps calm and console her, and then he helps me by interpreting for her father.”

Tim was able to express his appreciation during his daily debriefing with mentors, another support system he’s built in to the program .

“At the end of the day, in this beautiful moment, we were able to recognize him,” says Tim.

The small beach where the young camper cut herself that day was “by the spot Ed used to hang out the most, where they’d bait the hooks and untangle fishing line, and cut up fish they caught,” says Tim.

In a fitting tribute, a memorial bench is planned to be placed near Ed’s favorite spot, to honor his memory and spirit, says Camp Totokett volunteer Laura Noe, who is helping to arrange for the bench. The bench is hoped to be place in time for next year’s camp, set for July 30 to Aug. 3, 2018.

Tim knows he’ll be back next year, as will many of the mentors.

“For a lot of kids, they talk about empathy as a muscle; they get hooked on camp and begin to relate to the campers, and participate in their lives and what they have to deal with every day. That’s why we have such great retention. They give up a week of a summer job to come and work at camp again, because they’re hooked since that first experience.”

In addition to his mentors, Tim looks forward to regrouping each year with Rev. Borchetta and the many adult volunteers who support the program.

“You should see these people after a week of camp. Everyone is so sacked and tired, but happy and joyful and moved—and sometimes, sad,” says Tim. “There are a lot of tears when the buses take off at the end of the final day. I’m always drained and sleep for 24 hours! But the stand-out moments make me realize I have to do it again.”

To learn more about Camp Totokett, or to make a contribution, contact Rev. Theresa Borchetta at Branford First Congregational Church at 203-488-7201 or theresa@firstcongregationalbranford.org.

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