Changing Lives and Having Fun

Don’t tell Camp Sunshine administrator Jennie Nuzzo that teenagers today are unfocused and lazy. For decades at the camp, which offers recreational programs for children and young adults with multiple disabilities, Jennie has worked closely with young volunteers from the area and has seen nothing but commitment and caring from them year after year. “The kids who walk through these doors as volunteers are just amazing young people,” she says. “They do a wonderful job with our campers; working one-on-one with them can be challenging at times but the dedication we see is outstanding.”

Located in the Saddle River County Park’s Wild Duck Pond area in Ridgewood, Camp Sunshine opened its doors in 1960, founded by parents with disabled children who wanted a place for them to go in the summer to interact with other kids and help develop social skills. Jennie Nuzzo became involved with the camp in the late 1960s after looking into recreational programs for her then young daughter Joanne, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and is multiply disabled.

“I can’t say enough about the love and care Joanne received at Camp Sunshine, it really made a positive impact on her life, even to this day,” she says. “The volunteers work on a buddy system so she always had a friend next to her helping out and making her feel like she was part of the conversation, which gave her self-confidence.” Jennie and her husband Joseph helped found Camp Snowflake in 1970, a winter counterpart to Camp Sunshine which provides a social outlet for campers who had connected with each other during the summer.They meet once a week off-season on Saturdays at the same location.

Camp Sunshine is open for nine weeks each summer and offers arts and crafts projects, sports activities, field trips and twice-daily swims in their adapted, onsite heated swimming pool. The facility is fully equipped for the special needs of the campers with a playroom with computers and video and activity centers in over 2,000 square feet of air-conditioned space. “We have about 40 to 50 campers a day who sign up for weekly programs, 400 plus volunteers and about 20 or so paid staff members, most of whom are former volunteers,” says assistant administrator Kim DaSilva. “Some volunteers come to us because they are fulfilling community service hours for church or school and wind up not leaving when their hours are filled. Before you know it, their 10 hour commitment turns into staying for the whole summer!” And many of them, she says, go on to careers as occupational therapists, special education teachers and doctors. “For some of these kids it gives them a direction for their lives,” says Jennie. “In a way it makes them think about something besides themselves; that there is something better they can be doing.”

Ella Grbic, a 16 year-old from Ridgewood who volunteers at Camp Sunshine and Camp Snowflake finds the experience particularly rewarding: “You have to really spend time working with the campers to understand their specific needs and gain their trust,” she says. “This takes time and trial and error, but once you get there it’s really worth it.” While she once thought a business career might be in her future, Ella may be be reconsidering: “Being here, I have learned how much I love helping people so there is a good chance I’ll end up working in the medical or special education field.”

Camp Sunshine & Camp Snowflake, 1133 East Ridgewood Avenue, Ridgewood, 201.652.1755, Camp-sunshine.org