Camp tightens the family ties

Kids, grandparents connect while having fun

August 08, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun reporter

Libby Strahorn piled four of her youngest grandchildren into the commodious van they all call Gram's taxi and headed for day camp at the Havre de Grace Activity Center.

Strahorn wasn't dropping off the kids; she was staying to play at Harford County's first multigenerational camp.

"Just getting together with the grandchildren and watching them interact with each other is great," said Strahorn, 69, a Fallston resident, who made stops in White Hall and then Bel Air to collect the children. "This is something to do besides the usual."

Camp featured a director, several assistants and 10 campers who were the grandparents of the other 16. The price for four full days of fun - $25 per grandparent with a pair of grands.

"I am a veteran of these camps after doing them several times in Baltimore County," Strahorn said. "This one was closer to home."

Several grand-campers arrived with two children, but Strahorn told organizers she could not pick and choose from 10 grandchildren and five step-grandchildren. So she brought Rebekah Riley, 10, who ran all the errands and shot photos for the family album, while her brother, Caleb, 8, kept an eye out for snakes on a farm tour. The Rileys' cousins, sisters Jacquelyn and Mackenzie Walker, 8 and 6, sported matching tie-dyed T-shirts, so bright that Strahorn could easily keep track of them.

"This is just a chance for kids to hang out with their grandparents," said Andrea Pomilla, manager of the Havre de Grace Senior Center and camp organizer.

Baltimore County's day camps, held for the past eight years, draw repeat participants every year, usually until the children turn into teenagers, said Yvonne Yentsch, a social worker with the Baltimore County Department on Aging.

"It's a nice interaction and one where grandparents don't have to think of an activity for the kids," Yentsch said.

On their first day, the Harford campers toured a dairy farm, where both generations wondered where the ice cream might be. They took a hayride through a vineyard, crafted doggy images as they discussed Chesapeake Bay retrievers and then got up close to a few horses.

"She put her nose in my face," Molly Allan, 5, told her grandmother, Carol MacCubbin.

Nancy K. Schlossberg, an emeritus professor in education at the University of Maryland, said the camps "positively reinforce a critical relationship, especially for families in flux."

The concept should be replicated over and over, she said.

"The children are bonding with people who love them unconditionally and who act as family historians," Schlossberg said. "Grandparents can just be loving, not supervising. It is a great time for children, while their grandparents are still the main event in their lives."

At the dairy farm near Havre de Grace, Sophia Tobio, 10, admired the fortitude of her grandmother, Christina Belcher, 61.

"My grandmother does not like all the dirty stuff on the farm, but she is not afraid at all of the animals," Sophia said. "She wasn't afraid when a cow, a really big one, tried to eat my shirt."

Nor did Belcher show any fear when a hefty horse gave her a gentle nudge. She teetered a bit but regained her balance.

"That was almost one less grandmother," said Strahorn.

Belcher called the camp a perfect antidote for the August doldrums:

"This is the time when most families have taken their vacations, and kids are getting antsy and bored. This is fun for me because I have not been on a farm in a long time, and fun for Sophia, too. It's a great summer learning opportunity."

Pomilla said she designed the camp with field trips, art and crafts projects, even a few guest lecturers - one on horseback - tailoring the events to suit both generations.

"I wanted them to make memories in a different context," she said.

Or share memories.

Bill Simmons, 69, grew up on a dairy farm, in an era before automated milking machines and modern equipment like misters to keep cows cool in summer. The tour gave him a chance to relate a little family history to his 9-year-old grandson Mitchell Millan.

"This is a great way to show my grandson life on the farm," said Simmons, who lives in Forest Hill. "A lot of these kids have never seen a working farm and don't know the first thing about where food comes from."

Alex Shipley, 9, a Havre de Grace resident, definitely did not fit into that category. He knew horses are herbivores that swish flies away with their tails and he advised other campers to stay to the side or front of a horse to avoid a kick.

"He is always quoting National Geographic, which he reads regularly," Dana Boyd said of his grandson.

Boyd, 62, of Perryville, said he was skeptical when his daughter told him she had signed him and Alex up for the camp. But both grandfather and grandson took to it immediately.

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