Whether playing on the water, hiking through the woods, or rock climbing, enjoying the outdoors nourishes our spirits and bodies in countless ways. Connecticut’s natural beauty provides ample opportunity to spend time in the open air. Imagine growing up in our state, however, without ever having the chance to explore nature. Kids living with physical, developmental, or economic challenges often don’t get the opportunity. Families living with such realities often need to use all of their resources for necessities; spending a leisurely day outside is an impossible luxury. Thanks to the Channel 3 Kids Camp, located on 150 acres on the border between Andover and Coventry, children of all abilities and financial backgrounds can spend time in the open air.
“Most of the kids we serve have never been in the woods,” says Denise Hornbecker, chief executive officer of the camp, which welcomes more than 3,000 children a year. “We can accommodate children with special needs just as easily as children who are typically developing,” she says. Located in a beautiful, rustic setting along the Skungamaug River, Channel 3 Kids Camp is an inclusive environment with a swimming pool and more than 25 buildings including fully accessible sleeping cabins, a dining hall, and an arts and crafts building. Kids who have never been able to go fishing can cast a line in the river from a wheelchair-friendly pavilion on the water.
The camp staff works closely with the kids, who are supervised 24/7. “We have a very regimented schedule, like a school. We keep the children busy and engaged, and we bring in performers and speakers to inspire them,” Hornbecker says. Camp activities include swimming, rope and rock climbing, arts and crafts, and instruction in everything from video production to circus arts. The camp aims to provide endless adventure, while ensuring campers’ health and safety.
Grants and donations from individuals, foundations, and businesses make it possible for all young people, regardless of family finances, to attend Channel 3 Kids Camp. Camp fees are determined on a sliding scale based on family income and size. Overnight camp includes free transportation from towns around the state.
“We have documented stories of kids raised by single moms who have gone on to Ivy League universities,” Hornbecker says. “Their moms say that they don’t know what would have happened to them if not for the camp. We have foster kids who are separated from their siblings; we have kids with all types of families,” she says.
Channel 3 Kids Camp changes children’s lives. One of the camp’s earliest attendees is still involved with the organization. Ed Havens, 93, grew up poor in South Windsor. He attended the camp more than 80 years ago and says it saved him from getting into trouble on the streets. Havens, a former mayor of South Windsor, has served on the camp’s board of directors for many years and recently was recognized for his contributions at a November gala hosted by television personality and meteorologist Scot Haney. The event celebrated the 40-year partnership between Channel 3 and the camp.
The camp has been devoted to its philanthropic mission since its inception more than 100 years ago. In 1910, the Harrison B. Freeman family began to open their summer home, the Almada Lodge, so city kids could enjoy nature. The program grew, and by 1931, it became a nonprofit corporation. WFSB Channel 3 became the media partner for the camp in 1976, and it was eventually renamed the Channel 3 Kids Camp. Channel 3 does not own the camp or pay its expenses. Rather, Channel 3 helps bring attention to the nonprofit.
Businesses can take advantage of sponsorship opportunities at some of the fun events Channel 3 and the camp host including the Annual Channel 3 Kids Camp Golf Tournament, held in August at Mohegan Sun Golf Club, and Holiday Light Fantasia, held in Hartford’s Goodwin Park. In the spring, businesses can sponsor events such as the Kids Camp Telethon and the Women Raising Awareness Philanthropically luncheon. These gatherings are hosted and attended by Haney and WFSB Channel 3 news anchors such as Denise D’Ascenzo, Dennis House, and Kara Sundlun.
These fundraisers support the camp’s mission: “to provide fun, year-round opportunities to children of all abilities, families, and communities through educational and recreational programs that promote diversity, acceptance, and environmental appreciation.”
The camp also operates a childcare center with a sliding-scale fee system and offers Respite Weekends for children and adults with special needs. Participants can be dropped off on a Friday afternoon for a fun-filled weekend of sports, arts and crafts, cooking, baking, and team-building exercises. Participants also work on vocational goals customized to their needs based on consultations between caregivers and camp staff. Making new friends is a big part of these weekends. As is true with the summer camp, Respite Weekends help children and adults living with special needs and challenges to build leadership skills, self-confidence, and an appreciation for the outdoors.
Channel 3 Kids Camp ensures that any child in our state can enjoy Connecticut’s beautiful outdoors, no matter what obstacles might stand in the way. Hornbecker assures: “We help kids from all backgrounds. ‘Typical’ families don’t exist anymore.”
Theresa Anzaldua of Farmington is an award-winning writer and author of We Had a Job to Do: A Basic History of World War II Through the Eyes of Those Who Served. Purchase the book at harvard.com or amazon.com. Learn more at theresaanzaldua.com.
Photography Courtesy of Channel 3 Kids Camp