The Camp Good Days and Special Times’ family lost a very dear and special friend today – Father David Ambuske – who has been a part of our family and my life since my daughter Teddi’s diagnosis with a malignant brain tumor 33 years ago.
No family is ever prepared to deal with the loss of a child, but when Teddi, as most nine-year-olds would do, started talking about and asking questions about what heaven was like and what was it like to die, it was a little beyond my abilities to answer those questions. At the time, David was the Executive Director of the Monroe County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and was an advocate for children in Family Court and knew my first wife. She thought that he would be the perfect person to talk with Teddi and to his credit he took the time out of his busy schedule a few times a week to come over to our house and help her deal with those difficult questions regarding faith.
I liked David from the moment I met him. He was ordained as a Catholic Priest and also had his MSW from Fordham University. He left the priesthood, but when he realized how much he missed that special calling he became an Anglican Priest and opened a small church in Webster, but his job and passion were always young people.
After spending time with Father Dave, Teddi decided that she wanted to be baptized and Father Dave baptized her. When Teddi died in February 1982, which was a very difficult year, Father Dave officiated at her funeral. That summer, of the original 63 campers, 28 had lost their battle to cancer, including Teddi. At that time, we had no offices, we had no staff members – everyone was a volunteer - and we were still utilizing Camp Eagle Cove, a private boys and girls camp, in Inlet, New York in the central part of the Adirondack Mountains. When we arrived for the start of camp that summer, there was a big cloud that hung over all of us, as volunteers were looking for the campers they had befriended previously, only to find out that they had lost their battle with cancer, and our campers from Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse were looking for the friends they had made, only to find out that they had lost their battle with cancer.
One of the young ladies who was volunteering that summer at camp came up to me and said, Mr. Mervis we need to do something, we can’t pretend that these children didn’t exist. I told her that she didn’t need to tell me, as one of those children was Teddi. When I asked what she thought we should do, she said we should have a memorial service. Again, this was a little bit beyond my capabilities, so I called Father Dave who was in Downtown Rochester and told him I needed a favor. I explained what was happening and again to his credit he left work, got in his car, and drove all the way to Camp Eagle Cove. When he arrived, we gathered everyone together and had a memorial service. As soon as Father Dave completed the service it was as if everyone felt they had been granted permission to have fun and enjoy the good days and special times that we had planned for them.
This service became a tradition and a part of our culture here at Camp Good Days and to this day, on the opening evening of each session of camp, we hold an optional memorial service at the beautiful and peaceful Outdoor Chapel at our own Recreational Facility on Keuka Lake. Father Dave never let us down, continuing to conduct these services each week, throughout the summer.
Over the years, I have watched this kind, gentle, and caring man officiate at the funerals of our campers and volunteers and seen him marry volunteers, baptize children of volunteers, and provide the blessing and invocation at so many Camp Good Days’ functions and special events. Father Dave married my children, baptized my grandchildren, and even married my current wife, Wendy and I some 16 years ago.
Over the years, Camp Good Days has served more than 43,000 campers from 22 states and 27 foreign countries and Father Dave was the spiritual advisor to Camp Good Days. We never could have become the organization that we are today if it were not for his willingness to always be there, sharing his skills as a clergyman and social worker.
The loss of Father Dave will be a huge void, one that will be very difficult, if not impossible to fill. I am so deeply saddened and my heart is broken, especially as it is so close to Christmas, but I take comfort in knowing that the memories I have of David and the example he always set of kindness and compassion will remain with me forever. Father Dave walked the walk and he did God’s work here on earth. All of us whose lives he touched will be forever grateful for having had the blessing of knowing him.