Darien YMCA: Make a difference by sending a kid to camp

Counselors and campers enjoy sailing on Holly Pond during the Darien Y’s Swim and Sail Camp for Children with Special Needs.

The 11-year-old boy was very quiet when he first arrived at camp last summer, keeping mostly to himself.

But over the next seven weeks, he made many friends and began eagerly participating in more activities — from sports to crafts — in the Darien YMCA program.

“He began to shine,” said Suzanne Richards, Darien YMCA’s youth development and special needs director.

The youngster and his sibling attended the camp with the help of financial assistance from generous supporters of the Darien YMCA’s Send a Kid to Camp Campaign.

While the two children were experiencing new opportunities, their mother was busy as well. She was out every day looking for employment. For a period, the family was homeless due to economic challenges.

The kindness of donors allowed the mother to know her children were in a safe and uplifting environment during the day and not being overwhelmed by her hardship.

More than 600 local children ages 3 to 15 attended Darien YMCA summer camp programs last summer, with the financial assistance program benefiting 178 of them.

The summer camp builds lasting friendships and memories. Children learn, grow and thrive while acquiring new skills and participating in exciting adventures. Activities include sailing, canoeing and paddle-boarding on Holly Pond, swimming, arts and crafts, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), field trips and theme days.

Under the guidance of trained counselors and professional staff, a variety of camp programs are offered: pre-school, school-age traditional, gymnastics, one-week mini camps, Afternoon Navigators, and Swim and Sail for children with special needs.

One mother called her son’s ability to participate in the Swim and Sail program “a life-changing experience” for him.

She thanked the YMCA for its help in a letter and called the camp “a wonderful place” for her child, who’s on the autism spectrum.

“He’s always wanted to go to summer camp but I could never find one I could afford or thought would be able to accommodate his special needs,” she wrote. “His experience over-exceeded my expectations.”

While Darien is a prosperous community, 5% of the town’s population lives below the federal poverty level. These are neighbors whose children aren’t always able to share in the same experiences as their peers.

The Send a Kid to Camp Campaign allows a donor to directly impact the life of a child.

For instance, $750 pays for one child to attend the seven-week camp where they can stay active and engage in value-based activities; $500 fulfills a girl’s dream to learn gymnastics at the gymnastics camp; $250 allows a child with special needs to swim and experience sailing, and $100 gives the single mom of a preschooler the peace of mind that her child is being cared for in a fun, nurturing environment.

Children explore, build self-confidence and independence, learn social responsibility, develop life skills, and are physically and mentally active at Darien YMCA summer camp.

“We give them the opportunity to try new things they might not be able to do elsewhere,” Richards said.

For many children, that’s only possible through the goodwill of others in the community.