by Owen Barthel ’19
Imagine feeling out of place everywhere you go.
Imagine knowing that you are different from other people.
Imagine that, every single day, people notice that you are different, too.
How does that make you feel?
Now, imagine a place that makes such emotions disappear – somewhere that replaces this notion with feelings of joy and acceptance.
For hundreds of special-needs people in the Town of Hempstead, Camp A.N.C.H.O.R. (Answering the Needs of Citizens with Handicaps through Organized Recreation) is that place.
Founded almost 50 years ago and headquartered in Lido Beach, A.N.C.H.O.R. is a source of pure joy for all involved. For the special-needs campers, the camp provides safe access to an incredible array of activities ranging from singing to surfing. For the student volunteers, many of whom attend Chaminade, it provides immeasurable fun and unexpected rewards.
“We call it the happiest place on Earth, and I truly believe that it is,” said Thomas Epstein ’18. “Out of the 1,000-plus people that go to camp every day in the summer, it’s difficult to find one person without a smile on their face.”
To those who know Chaminade’s mission of developing “Christian community and education of the heart,” it comes as no surprise that dozens of Flyers volunteer at A.N.C.H.O.R.
The heart certainly gets a workout at the camp. First-time volunteers often approach the camp with trepidation, only to have it melt away as a result of the sheer enthusiasm of the campers.
“I used to be so uncomfortable around people with special needs,” explained John Frohnhofer ’18. “Now I understand that there is nothing to be scared of, that children and adults with special needs are not intimidating.”
John added that he started at A.N.C.H.O.R. “only because my sister forced me to do it, but I am forever thankful.”
Camp A.N.C.H.O.R.’s flagship summer program runs from just after the Fourth of July into early August. Each day, dozens of yellow buses from all over deliver campers and volunteers to the south shore of Long Island.
The camp looks like a carnival, with giant striped tents to keep participants from frying in the summer sun. Each day, when the buses unload, the camp quickly develops a cheerful atmosphere to match its appearance, with excitement filling the air as the day’s events approach.
A typical day features a wide range of activities, the most popular of which is probably the surf camp. Campers, with the help of experienced surfers and lifeguards, paddle out into the ocean on surfboards and ride the waves back to the beach.
These campers also have an annual swim meet in the A.N.C.H.O.R. pool against the swim team from Malibu Beach Club. The A.N.C.H.O.R. team is undefeated and invariably sends their competitors away with friendly taunts like, “I don’t know why you even bother coming here – you lose every year!”
When the summer is over, A.N.C.H.O.R. moves its programs to indoor facilities, such as bowling alleys, swimming pools and recreation centers.
For all the fun, volunteers say they learn some very serious lessons about responsibility and the perceptions and realities of interacting with special-needs people.
Ben Sasso ’21 said his experience at the camp has given him a better understanding of people with special needs. A job he expected to involve “babysitting” turned out to be much more.
Thomas Flatley ’18 also gained some important insight from his time as a volunteer. “The camp has made me more understanding and patient when interacting with others because I’ve realized not everyone’s brain works the same way,” he said.
The impacts that Camp A.N.C.H.O.R. has on volunteers can run deep and extend well into their adult lives. Martin Brull ’92 started working at A.N.C.H.O.R. over 25 years ago. The experience literally changed his life, and he now works full time with special-needs people, both at Camp A.N.C.H.O.R. and in his work as a physical therapist.
In 2008, Martin created the Tommy Brull Foundation, which raises money for A.N.C.H.O.R. and other special-needs efforts through music festivals and other events. The foundation is named for Martin’s brother, who died in the late 1990s. Tommy was also an avid A.N.C.H.O.R. volunteer, and the main gym in the Lido Beach facility carries his name.
If there is one thing which connects all A.N.C.H.O.R. volunteers, it is the lessons they have learned from the campers. People start their work at the camp thinking they are giving something, but they end up getting much more in return.
“The special needs kids treat everyone like they’re perfect,” said John Bonanno ’19. “Seeing this really changed me personally; we have to follow their example and treat others with that same sense of dignity and love.”