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GREENVILLE — It was in the year 1855 that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow introduced American audiences to his semi-fictional hero, Hiawatha, a character based loosely on several different Ojibwa, Chippewa and Anishinaabeg legends. The opening verses of the most quoted portion of his epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” captured the imagination of readers worldwide, painting a portrait of a world that had even then begun to fade into history:
“By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.”
With a cadence that echoes, drum-like through deciduous forests untrammeled by the footsteps of men, Longfellow transported readers to an older, better place, a place where man and nature existed side-by-side and Mother Earth still cradled “the people” gently in sympathetic arms.
It is from this poem that Camp Wah Wah Tay See derives its name and in large part, its purpose. Since 1963 Wah Wah Tay See – Ojibwa for “Little Firefly” – has allowed special needs campers to experience that elusive, ephemeral beauty described by Longfellow.
For campers like Nathan Killgore of Gowen, Wah Wah Tay See has been an important part of life since kindergarten. Now 25, Killgore has attended the one-week camp each summer, located in Greenville’s Tower Park. The rich experiences gained there cannot be easily put into words, though Killgore – always excited to share stories of camp life – is willing to try.
“We do all sorts of different activities,” Killgore said. “Swimming, canoeing, fishing, archery, games, crafts … we have bonfires. We make use of the new trail they made to walk down to go fishing. I have friends from school who go there too. I like it all.”
Though Killgore’s words fall somewhat short of the poetic sophistication penned by Longfellow, they lack for nothing when it comes to enthusiasm. The light that shines from his eyes as Killgore describes his all-time favorite camp activity – canoeing – would warm even the most citified heart.
Killgore’s story is repeated 300 times each summer as special needs campers from throughout the area converge on Wah Wah Tay See to experience nature first hand, up close and personal.
According to Wah Wah Tay See board member Kathryn Tissue, that’s 300 good reasons to keep the camp running despite its current fiscal belt-tightening. After a recent Sunday service at the church she and Killgore both attend, Tissue listened – with some trepidation – as Killgore enthused about his experiences at camp.
“I did think about asking, ‘What if you can’t afford it this summer?’” Tissue said. “’What if there is no Camp Wah Wah Tay See this summer?’ But I only thought about it briefly and said nothing. How could I plant that seed of discouragement in the heart of this trusting young man? The camp has always been there; how could it not be there this summer?”
Unfortunately, that “seed of discouragement,” is something Tissue and her fellow board members cannot afford to ignore. The camps operating costs this summer are expected to be around $55,000, or $11,000 per week. Though coming up with operating funds is always a challenge, things are particularly tight this year despite the fact the budget has been trimmed virtually to the bone.
Costs have been reduced wherever possible without sacrificing safety or programming, Tissue said. This has been accomplished in large part by relying more heavily on volunteer workers whenever possible. Still, the primary expense at this point remains personnel. A camp director, health officer and counselors – all mandated by law – must be present at the camp 24/7 whenever campers are present.
Dan Petersen, who also sits on the Wah Wah Tay See board of directors, blames a recent shortage of government funds for the camp’s current financial woes.
“There is no doubt that the camp budget is tighter this year than it has been in previous years,” Petersen said. “The shortage of funds is a convergence of things. Mainly, the governmental sources of funding that have paid for operations have dried up. Many donors have decreased their contribution as the economy has failed to fully recover.”
Petersen added he is hoping that at least a few of the “regular givers” – among them the Ionia-Montcalm Department of Human Services Board and United Way – continue to support the program this summer.
Additionally, Petersen stressed the importance of donations from local businesses and individuals.
“We’ve relied on these individual donations, on average, to the tune of about $26,000 during the past six years,” Petersen said.
Many of the larger donors have over the years decreased their donations or stopped giving altogether.
“The decreased donations from individuals and the drying up of government funding have brought us to this situation,” Petersen said. “The camp board has worked hard not only to trim the budget, but really look at the way camp is operated. While the camp has a relatively small budget, there is no sustainable funding mechanism in place, so there has been a lot of hard work associated with raising that kind of funding on an annual basis.”
To help counter this problem, this year campers will be asked to cover the entire cost of the camp, about $250 per camper per session. In exchange, the length of each camp session is being extended to five full days, Monday through Friday.
“(We hope) this will help families justify what we are asking of them,” Petersen said. “We continue to explore options that will reduce the costs of operating camp, while preserving the experience for the individuals that we serve.
“The impact of the program in the lives of the campers and their families is significant,” he said. “In terms of a budget, it’s really a very small program, however, there’s no cash-cow associated with it, either. It takes a lot of hard work by the members of the advisory board to raise the money to make camp happen on an annual basis.”
That’s sometimes easier said than done, Petersen admits. For those tasked with keeping the camp open, the job can sometimes seem insurmountable.
“It’s easy for board members – all of whom care deeply for the camp and its mission – to get burnt out from raising money for the camp on an annual basis,” Petersen said. “When it gets harder and harder to raise money, the burn-out factor increases accordingly. They keep at it, though, because they understand the importance. We would really like to see more community awareness of the camp, more involvement from those who are interested in its mission, and a strong partnership with an area university.”
For all that to happen, though, volunteers and donors will have to continue to step up and do the right thing. But with a little luck and a lot of community support, “Little Firefly’s” light will continue to shine for all the Nathan Killgores yet to come; all those stalwart campers waiting in line for a chance to experience their own communion with the natural world.