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Teacher Takes On Summer Camp

Kimberly Neilsen chuckles a bit when I ask her my first question. She’s just about to finish her second full year teaching first grade at Holmes Elementary School, which any teacher can tell you can be as exhausting as it is rewarding. So why, instead of taking the summer off to relax, would she want to serve as director for New Canaan’s Camp Hand-in-Hand?

“I do the academics all year,”  Kimberly said. “I love working with kids, doing the fun things, and seeing that other aspect of them.” She’s worked at summer camps since she was 16, and spent the last four years working at Innis Arden Golf Club’s summer program in Greenwich. But Camp Hand-in-Hand, her first opportunity to run her own program, is different.

Now in its seventh year, the camp takes in 60 kids each year, ages 6 to 9, mostly from New Canaan, Darien, Norwalk and Stamford. Drawing from the four towns, one of Camp Hand-in-Hand’s goals is diversity. The program aims to take kids of a wide array of backgrounds, in terms of culture, socioeconomic status, religion and interests. “What we want to do is take these kids in, and really expose them to something they really wouldn’t be exposed to or involve them in something that they haven’t done before,” Neilsen said.

“The concept is that these children are going to be living in a global world," said JoAnne Kennedy, a member of the program’s Board of Directors. "And particularly towns like Darien and New Canaan, they’re not as diverse as they’d like to be.”

The camp features a six-week program, and each day is divided into four areas of interest: music, art, sports and swimming. Each area is overseen by a teacher who specializes in those areas professionally during the school year. They also have many guest speakers come in for presentations, such as the New Canaan Fire Department, the town’s EMS, and even specialists with therapy dogs, who allow the children to snuggle up to the animals and read books to them, which encourages reluctant and avid readers alike.

Although it is nondenominational, inviting students of any religion, Camp Hand-in-Hand operates mostly out of the facilities of St. Mark’s Church, which has “been very generous letting us use that space,” Kennedy said.  But they often branch out to the surrounding area, taking tours of the nearby Nature Center, or visiting with seniors at Waveny Care next door.

The program also takes advantage of its bus service, which not only brings students from the four towns into the camp each day, but helps the take weekly field trips. This summer, the campers will take tours of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Beardsley Park in Bridgeport,and the Maritime Aquarium Stew Leonard's in Norwalk. They’ll also hspend a day out on Long Island Sound, courtesy of the Darien Boat Squadron.

Because the camp is non-profit, they are able to keep the cost affordable for those who can pay, and offer scholarships for those who can’t. The six-week program costs $1,000, and also offers two-week portions for $375. But to keep the camp diverse, the fees from one-third of the campers are used to pay for the remaining two-thirds. This year, the camp may end up operating at a loss because of that, but Kennedy hopes that they’ll be able to make up the difference with fundraising.

One of those fundraising events is this Sunday, and it could prove to be a good draw. In a joint effort with the Michael B. Stabile ‘97 Memorial Scholarship Fund, which offers assistance to students at Trinity Pawling School in Pawling, N.Y., Camp Hand-in-Hand will host a performance by Alejandro Escovedo and The Sensitive Boys. Escovedo, who was born in Texas to Mexican parents, is a critically acclaimed musician who will be touring this summer to promote his new album. He’s playing in New Canaan first, however, because “He really believes in the cause,” Kennedy said.

The concert will be at St. Mark’s starting at 5 p.m. Sunday. Afterward, there will be a reception featuring margaritas and Mexican hors d’oeuvres. There will also be a silent auction, offering tickets to concerts, including for performances by James Taylor with Carole King, Sting, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, as well as dinner gift certificates, nights at the Roger Sherman inn, and many other prizes.

Tickets are $65 for adults and $20 for students, and are on sale at the Elm Street Book Store in New Canaan and at the Lion’s Den Bookstore at St. Mark’s Church during their regular business hours, via e-mail at info@camp-hand-in-hand.org , or at the door the night of the performance. Everything was donated, including Escovedo’s time, so Kennedy says “Everything is basically a donation to the camp.”

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