Friday, July 24, 2020

A Life Lived in the Service of Others

 
*Photo Credit: St. John Fisher College*
 
I was saddened to learn earlier this week that a friend of mine, Father Joseph Trovato, passed away after 30 years of serving the students at St. John Fisher College and the parishioners at Christ the King Church in Irondequoit. He was the college’s first director of Campus Ministry and served in that position the longest.
 
I can honestly say that every time I was able to see him, he would have a smile on his face. He always asked about my daughter, Teddi, when she was going through her battle with cancer and he was always thinking about the children of Camp Good Days. Lou Buttino, a professor at St. John Fisher, helped to start the Teddi Dance for Love and wrote “For the Love of Teddi.” He introduced me to Father Joe many years ago.
 
One of the Teddi Dance for Love traditions at St. John Fisher, the blessing of the feet, happens the Friday before the dance. The head of campus ministry blesses the students as they lay down with their feet in the air. Father Joe always loved this tradition. He would come by to see the beginning of the dance and would also be there at the end to celebrate with the students. A few years ago, the current director of Campus Ministry, Father Kevin Mannara, surprised me by bringing Father Joe to the dance. That was the highlight of that year’s dance for me.
 
The lives that he touched during his time on Earth are immeasurable. He was truly a saint here on earth because he was always concerned about others before himself. He left everyone who had the chance to meet him feeling better from the experience. I’m sure as he enters the kingdom of Heaven, the Lord will say that he was a good and faithful servant who led a good life in service of others.
 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Moving Forward in this New Normal

 
I hope that you, and your family and friends are doing well during this crazy time of uncertainty. I know for all of us at Camp Good Days, this has been a difficult and stressful time in our lives. It is the first time in 41 years that we will have no summer residential camping programs for the children and families we serve. This decision was not made lightly and has been hard for everyone including our campers, staff and volunteers.
 
On June 27th, it was Teddi‘s birthday. It is hard to believe that she would have been 51 years old. It was a beautiful day in Rochester, so I took flowers to her grave and sat on the bench that I put in a few years ago behind her headstone. I was the only one in the entire cemetery, so I decided to sit for a while and reflect. I started to ask many questions that I will unfortunately never know the answers to: Who would’ve been that special partner in her life? Would she have had or decided not to have children? What would she have done with her life? And what would my life had been like had Teddi not been diagnosed with cancer? I just tried to make sense of these questions and what could have been had my life not changed forever.
 

One of my favorite sayings is something Mark Twain said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” For me, I look back on my life and I realize that I have been doing what I was put on this earth to do. I was initially trying to bring children with cancer out of the dark ages and give them the opportunity to get back some of the childhood illness had stolen from them. I am amazed at how far the organization has come after starting as a simple summer camp for Teddi and 62 other children from Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse, who were all dealing with cancer. I started the camp at a time where few people would accept the idea that a child could have a disease like cancer and still be able to have a camping experience. It was also during a time when people did not care about the quality of the lives of children diagnosed with cancer, they only cared about finding a medical cure. Over the years, the medical side has gotten better and we have had better treatments. As a result, children with cancer live longer than in the past, but there is still a need for places like Camp Good Days where those children can have their recreational and psychosocial needs met.
 
I am pleased that with the help of so many volunteers and a group of truly dedicated professional staff, Camp Good Days has continued to be there for children and families affected by cancer from all over the world. On the shores of Keuka Lake and in the town of Branchport, we have created a very special home away from home for our campers. Over the past 41 years, Camp Good Days has served over 50,000 campers from 22 states and 36 countries, and $.90 of every dollar goes directly towards our many programs and services that we provide. Now, we must address the future and plan for what will become the new normal.
 
We are living during a time that we have never seen before in our history. We are dealing with not only the immense civil unrest but also the crazy pandemic that we are struggling with trying to find answers to. There is no question that both have been totally mishandled and the aftermath will affect us for many years. Thinking of all this, we at Camp Good Days are busy trying to come up with a plan that we can implement for our 2021 fiscal year that will address that new normal while hopefully being able to provide safe and fun programs. I think the most important responsibility that we have is given to us by a child’s parent or guardian who has entrusted Camp Good Days with their child’s safety. As I have told our staff and volunteers every summer during training, we need to make sure that we send the children back home in better condition than when they were given to us.
 
I ended my session at Teddi‘s gravesite the same way I do every day, by asking Teddi to be my guardian angel and to help me make the right decisions for the special organization that I am in charge of, especially now when we have had to deal with so much. I hope that she’s proud of her old man and as long as, in my heart, I feel that she is, we will continue to meet these challenges head-on and continue to advocate for the very special children and families in our community who need us the most.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Adapting and Adjusting During COVID-19

I know that it has been a while since I have written a new blog post; we have been busy with so many things. In these uncertain times that we are all living in right now, I thought it would be important to let you know that Camp Good Days is still here, because people still need our help. Unfortunately, just because we are dealing with this new pandemic, it doesn’t mean that no one will be affected by cancer. People will still come back from the doctor after being told that the pathology report came back and they have cancer. And despite all of our fears of the unknown in regard to the Coronavirus, I am still convinced that a diagnosis of cancer is even more scary, and that a cancer diagnosis creates enormous thoughts, questions, and fears, and I want people to know that we, here at Camp Good Days, are still here ready to help. There will always be someone to talk to.

This is the time of year where Camp Good Days is very busy, and it is when what we do really shines. We are getting ready for our summer camping programs, including our Junior Good Days day-camp program and our residential camps. We are still looking for wonderful men and women to volunteer at the programs and summer staff who we hire to help at the facility during the summer camp season. There will be a new surprise this summer with the addition of a new building at camp—a museum that will house and share some of the history of Camp Good Days while also creating additional indoor space when we need it.

Right now, like everyone else, we are working remotely, but if people leave their name and phone number on the voicemail machine at the office, the appropriate person will get back to them as soon as they can. All staff are also available via email. Eventually, this crisis will be behind us, and we want to be ready to go into full motion without skipping a beat. While this pandemic is forcing us to work in a different way by working from home, the work still must go on. Throughout this time, we will continue to be here for those families that need us. There is no question that these are uncertain times and our summer programs may be impacted depending on what will happen with the remainder of the school year, since we cannot run our programs until summer recess has begun. But, we are truly blessed with a dedicated staff of people who never look at what they do as a job, rather they look at what they do as a ministry, and no matter what their job is, they have a desire to help make a difference in the lives of those we serve, so we are all still here as a resource.
We know that these uncertain times are hard for everyone, especially for many people who have lost their jobs and are struggling financially, but if you have the opportunity, or are able to help, please keep our children and our families in your mind. Our spring special events and fundraisers have been postponed, so we are not bringing in much revenue. At this time, donations are what are helping to keep our programs going, and no amount is insignificant. I was reminded of this when I received a letter a few days ago from Deacon Paul at the Groveland Correctional Facility with a donation from the inmates. The inmates are given 25 cents, 50 cents, a dollar, or more, when they attend mass each week, and when there is enough collected, they choose a worthwhile cause that they would like to make a charitable donation to. They chose Camp Good Days as their charity of choice, and it really meant a lot to me since right now there aren’t a lot of checks that are coming in. This shows you how meaningful and important what we do is. Here are people who have sacrificed the little money they have access to in order to help children and families touched by cancer. Our support comes from many places, but it means so much to me when it comes from people who believe, no matter their situation, that they want to help others. Over the years, thanks to donations like that, we have served around 50,000 campers from 22 states and 36 countries, and we are certainly hoping that we will be able to continue being there for every child and family that truly needs us.
Please know that all of us at Camp Good Days are keeping you all in our thoughts, and please reach out if you need anything.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Losing Two Very Special People

Things at Camp Good Days continue to be extremely busy as we transition from being down at camp to being full-time at our headquarters in Mendon.  Added to the busyness was the recent news that two very special people to Camp Good Days and to me personally had passed away.

Laurie Allinger was one of our original campers.  She was a beautiful young lady who, following her cancer diagnosis, lost one of her arms and all of the supporting tissue around it.  Despite this, Laurie never let anything stand in her way of living life to the fullest.  I will always remember being up at Camp Eagle Cove in the early years and watching the children participate in our archery program, and seeing this beautiful young lady putting the bow between her toes, sitting on the ground, and pulling the string back to shoot the target, and very often making bulls eyes.  I remember her on Canandaigua Lake doing wind surfing by holding the rope in her mouth, with I and many of our volunteers marveling at her enthusiasm and how she would not let anything stand in her way.  If there was a poster child for camp’s first two years, it was Laurie. 



From the very first year, she bonded with my daughter, Teddi, and in fact I still remember the day that they proudly came up to me and told me that they were blood sisters.  Laurie was always there for Teddi.  After the first summer at camp, Teddi had a recurrence of her cancer which caused her to have a lot of challenges.  Teddi was confined to a wheel chair because of the excessive amounts of radiation she went through and she had gone blind because the brain tumor had grown and shut off her optic nerve. Laurie loved Teddi and made a large effort to include her in everything she did, despite Teddi’s unique challenges that she had.  Teddi died from her cancer on February 27th of 1982 and Laurie just died from the side effects and challenges of her cancer in September of 2019.  All those years that Laurie had weren’t always good ones and the illness took a large toll on her body.  It was tough learning about her passing and further learning that her death was not an easy one, but the consolation is that I know that she is in heaven with Teddi and all of the other children and volunteers from Camp Good Days, and that she is no longer in any pain.  I can picture Laurie and Teddi once again renewing their special relationship. 


The second passing I learned about was the passing of Bat McGrath.  I really didn’t know Bat until some of our volunteers had an idea to have a concert featuring some music artists who got their start here in Upstate New York.  Bat was one of the first people who was asked and agreed to do it.  Unfortunately, the concert never happened because of the flooding that had occurred down at camp, resulting in over a half of a million dollars in damages.

Later on, when Bat travelled from his home in Nashville to visit this area, he decided to visit camp and see it for himself. He said that when he was going back home, he had the desire to write a song about Camp Good Days.  One day, my assistant told me that she had received an email from Bat along with a song that he had written about camp.  It was difficult for me to hear it and understand it, so I had my assistant email him back and ask if he could send it to me on a CD.  Bat went out, rented a studio and recorded the song so that I could have a CD version of it.  When I listened to it, I fell in love with it, and I shared it with my staff who also fell in love with it.  So, I invited Bat when he came back the next summer to actually come to camp and see camp in session and play his song, which he did with his wife.  While he was at camp, he said it would be great if we could put a video with the music so that I or my staff could use it when we made presentations about Camp Good Days.  So, Bat made some calls to his friends and he got someone who would be able to create a video for the song.

A few days before Christmas that year, I got a call from the person who put the video together asking if I could come out to their office and see the finished product.  And I have to admit, I was a little taken aback not only because the video was so well done and so beautiful, but because, unbeknownst to me, they had slipped in a few videos of Teddi and I.  I have to say, if I have used that video once, I have used it 100 times and every time I do, I feel so fortunate that Bat came into my life. 

Like many of you, I am sure; I was shocked to learn that he had been diagnosed with cancer last year.  And when I had heard that he was going to play some of his music at Lovin’ Cup, I called one of the owners, Leslie Zinc, to ask if she could get me into the sold out show, and she made sure that Wendy and I had seats at his last concert.  It was emotional to see him because he had lost probably 40 pounds and he was weak, but the showman that he was, he stood and performed for the whole concert, and then he even had CDs available that he sat down to sign for his fans.  Every time I see that beautiful video, I will think of him.

I wanted to write this blog because I think it is important that we recognize these two very special people.  In Bat’s case, we are going to dedicate the music hut at camp to him.  And then for Laurie, we will do a special activity at camp in her honor next summer. 

If you would like to see the video of Bat’s song, please follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biQWpUcRvbY.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Jumping into Fall

As we head into fall, and we approach our next fiscal year, we are turning our main focus from our camping programs to our various offices. 

Two weeks ago, we had the 4th Annual Teddi Bowl game on Thursday, September 5th between Victor High School and Canandaigua High School, held at Victor.  It was a great night with over 4,000 fans in attendance.  I want to give a special thanks to the coaches, athletic directors, staff, and players who helped make the game possible.  Our campers had a wonderful time being able to be part of the football teams and cheer squads.  It was the opening night for Section V Football and the weather was perfect. The Victor Blue Devils ended up defeating the Canandaigua Braves with a final score of 31-14, but the real winners of the game were the campers from Camp Good Days who participated. 





We also had our annual Tour de Teddi bike ride on Saturday, September 7th at our camp facility on Keuka Lake.  This year, there were over 380 riders in attendance making it the most participated in Tour de Teddi for Camp Good Days to date! The day had beautiful weather and the riders were able to enjoy their ride, have a barbeque along with wine and beer tastings, and walk around the camp. 



We have our 15th Annual Courage Bowl coming up on October 5th between the St. John Fisher College Cardinals and the College at Brockport Golden Eagles.  This year, it will be held at Growney Stadium at St. John Fisher College. Kick-off is at 6:00PM!  If you would like to purchase tickets for the game, please call our office at 585-624-5555.

If you or anyone you know would like to help Camp Good Days by donating a few hours of your time, we are happy to announce that we will once again be holding our annual Kazoo Fest with the help of JCPenny and the area malls.  You can come and help sell kazoos and spread the word about Camp Good Days.  The Kazoo Fest goes from the end of November until the end of December.  As it gets closer to November, you will be able to sign up to volunteer on our website.

We had a small ceremony the other day at a place that is near and dear to my heart.  We had a bench made in honor of my good friend who passed away in February of 2017, Sal “Skip” DeBiase, and placed it in “Teddi’s Place” in Highland Park.  Skip was a dear friend of mine, someone who loved Teddi very much, and a great friend to camp.  I can honestly say that without his help, Camp Good Days wouldn’t have been able to serve the over 48,000 campers that have come to our programs over these past 40 years.  If you ever want a quiet place to reflect, please stop by “Teddi’s Place” and sit on the new bench.  It is just down the steps from the water reservoir. 



If you would like to stay updated on all things Camp Good Days including our events coming up, please tune in to our monthly radio show with WYSL 92.1FM and 1040AM and follow us on Facebook.  You can also get the radio show podcast on the WYSL website: http://www.wysl1040.com/podcasts.php.

Our 40th summer was full of amazing programs and wonderful people, and I am so very proud of how Camp Good Days has grown over these years.  When I go to bed at night I think about how Teddi would be proud of everything that we have done to keep her spirit alive.  I know that Teddi is looking down on not only me, but all of our campers, staff, and volunteers who are experiencing the wonder of Camp Good Days.

I will leave you with a quote that I found.  I liked it so much that I ordered a print of it and hung it on my wall across from my desk so that I can look at it every day:

May the sun bring you new energy by day
May the moon softly restore you by night
May the rain wash away your worries
May the breeze blow new strength into your being
May you walk gently through the world
and know its beauty all the days of your life

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Celebrating a Milestone

This past weekend, we at Camp Good Days celebrated our 40th year milestone with a Reunion Weekend celebration.  In one sense, 40 years sounds like a long time, but in another, it amazes me to think about all that has been accomplished in such a short amount of time.

 
Wendy and I drove to camp Friday night to make sure we were there early Saturday morning to greet all of the former campers and volunteers who were there to celebrate with us.  I got up early on Saturday morning, made some coffee and went out onto the deck of my cabin.  As I was sitting there, I was reminded of how beautiful it is at our facility and how wonderful the Lord’s creations are.  The sun was shining, the lake was crystal clear and it was the start of a beautiful day.  I was so excited to see how the weekend would unfold and to see old friends, and that made me realize how many people I would not be able to see.  There are so many people who helped to make Camp Good Days possible and I will be forever grateful to them.

One of these people was my brother from another mother, Sal “Skip” DeBiase.  Skip knew Teddi personally and knew what I was trying to accomplish with Camp Good Days.  He shared his printing press and helped to create the flyers and materials I used to help spread the word about Camp Good Days. 

My old boss for many years while I was in government, James Nagle, was another one of these amazing people.  He knew what my family and I were going through and saw how much work it would take to get Camp Good Days started.  He allowed me to make Camp Good Days a priority and supported me throughout the journey.

Ray Cordello became a saving grace for Camp Good Days.  When I was getting Camp Good Days started, I was confident in myself to come up with good ideas and execute them, and get the fundraising under way, but I did not have a strong accounting background and I knew that a successful non-profit needed to have good finance records.  Ray stepped up to the plate and started off as a volunteer to help with the financials and was later employed as our CFO.  I never worried about the state of our financials while Ray was in charge.

Father David Ambuske was like the spiritual advisor for Camp Good Days.  When Teddi had a lot of questions about Heaven and life and death, Father Ambsuke was there to reassure her and offer her spiritual guidance.  When I started Camp Good Days, I didn’t want to force religion on any of the participants, I wanted each person to believe and practice what was most comforting to them.  To be honest, I didn’t want religion to be a large part of Camp Good Days.  After the first few sessions of camp, we had over 20 of the original 62 campers pass away including Teddi.  At that time we had no offices or staff, everyone was a volunteer.  When we got to the Adirondack Mountains that next summer, there was a cloud over everyone.  The volunteers looked for friends from the other cities who were not there, and the campers looked for other campers who were not there.  We tried to get everyone excited for this wonderful week we had been planning all year, but everyone was too sad.  Margaret Register, who I liked to call “Muggs” was a volunteer who had cancer as an adolescent and now helped Camp Good Days.  She came over to me and said, “Gary, we cannot pretend like those children who are not here didn’t exist.”  I told her that I knew that, I just wasn’t sure what we could do to help.  Her answer was that we needed to have a service of remembrance.  This sounded like something that was out of my realm, and so I called the one person I knew could help, David Ambuske.  He was the Executive Director for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Monroe County.  I called him and said that I needed him to leave work and come to the campsite; I needed a very large favor.  He left and drove up right away, and he held a service of remembrance for those who were no longer with us.  After the service, we felt like a 1,000 pound weight was lifted off of our shoulders and everyone felt like they were now allowed to enjoy their time at camp.  This ceremony became a tradition.  Every first night of each program, we do a ceremony to remember those we have lost, and every year, Father Ambuske performed the ceremonies until his death. 

Dr. Martin Klemperer came into my life when I greatly needed him. When I realized that I needed a physician to be at the camp in order to properly take care of the children who were attending, he stepped up.  Camp Good Days was the fourth program of its kind in the country, but the first started by a lay-person; all others had been started by physicians.  I had been told that it would be hard to find a doctor who was willing to give up his time to be at a program that he did not come up with himself.  Dr. Klemperer gave up his time to be our primary physician at camp and he truly saw the value of what camp could provide; the psycho-social healing that a hospital could not help.  I can honestly say that without his selflessness and commitment to camp, we would never have been able to serve the over 48,300 campers from 22 states and 36 countries that we have been able to help over these past 40 years. 

The last person I will talk about is Dr. Jack Dadey.  He became involved with Camp Good Days after he and his wife read an article about Camp Good Days in the March issue of McCall’s Magazine in 1982.  I received a beautiful letter from his wife letting me know that as a family, they would like to help.  Dr. Dadey stayed involved with Camp Good Days for the rest of his life.

These are just a few of the people who were involved in helping Camp Good Days get started.  All of them have been called to meet their maker. There are many others from the early years who I have not mentioned, and there are thousands who have helped along the way and leant their time, talent and treasure to help make the miracle of Camp Good Days possible.

After thinking about all of these wonderful people who truly helped to start Camp Good Days, I was excited to see the former campers who were now adults and had families of their own, and the many wonderful volunteers and staff we have had over the years.  Everyone was able to see what Camp Good Days has become.  Some in attendance had never seen the facility on Keuka Lake and were blown away by how beautiful it is.  We had a chicken barbeque, a live band, and fantastic fireworks.  With the help of long-time volunteer, Mike Falvo, and his wife, Marie, we unveiled the time capsule that we dug up from many years before.  It was filled with old items that brought back many memories to all in attendance.  We then added new items from this year, and buried a new time capsule that will be unveiled in the future.  At the end of the weekend, we had a service of appreciation and gratitude that Sr. Francella Quinn led at the outdoor chapel.  We had a farewell circle and sang the Camp Good Days song that was written for us years ago. Everyone said goodbye to each other and our weekend came to an end.

Unveiling the time capsule

Greeting everyone in attendance

 I know that everyone who came to reunion will stay in touch, and I am sure that they cannot wait to see how Camp Good Days continues to grow.  In the future days and weeks to come, I will be remembering the weekend fondly and thinking about all of the wonderful people who help to make Camp Good Days possible.

To stay up-to-date about what we are doing, please follow us on Facebook  and listen to the Camp Good Days radio show on 1040AM and 92.1FM, or listen to the podcast at any time at www.wysl1040.com. 

Me with campers and volunteers from the first year of Camp Good Days

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Kicking off our 40th Summer

There has been a lot happening so far as we kick off our 40th summer!

On Friday, May 17th, I was proud to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the State University of New York at the College at Brockport as well as be the Graduate Ceremony Commencement Speaker.  Camp Good Days has such a special relationship with Dr. Heidi Macpherson, the president of the college, and the College at Brockport’s students and faculty. 
 

 

I was also very honored to speak at Desi Benet’s celebration of life.  Desi was the wife of Bill Benet, a long-time Camp Good Days supporter whose father is the inspiration behind the Joe Benet Memorial Kazoo Fest that Camp Good Days celebrates around Christmas time at the local malls.  Desi was a wonderful friend to me and to Camp Good Days, and we will all miss her very much.

On May 20th, we held our 36th Annual Tournament of Love golf tournament at Monroe Golf Club.  We had a wonderful turnout and while the day was very windy, the rain stayed away and everyone was able to have a great day on the golf course.  We were very happy to have Salvatore “Soccer Sam” Fantauzzo be the honorary chair for the event.

On Tuesday, May 28th the Camp Good Days staff attended the opening of the new Salvatore’s location on Monroe Avenue in Pittsford.  We were very happy to support Soccer Sam and his staff, and the food, as always, was delicious!


 
We had our first Project TIPS of the summer on Thursday, May 30 at Jones Square Park.  We had many representatives there from law enforcement, the medical field, community programs etc. who took the time to interact with the residents who live in the neighborhood and provide them with information and toys for the children.  This program is such a wonderful way to improve the relationships between law enforcement and the people in the communities they serve.  It is the best example of community policing.  During this event, we have a quality of life survey done by volunteers which are then given to the Criminal Justice program students at RIT to see what residents want improved in their neighborhoods.  We also have a cookout and A Horse’s Friend provides horseback rides for the children while DJ Dr. Sweetback plays music.  There will be a Project TIPS on June 27, July 25 and August 22.  Please refer to our website for updated information on location for each TIPS.


 

Lastly, this past weekend we kicked off our first program of the summer, our Camp SOAR (Supportive Oncology Adult Retreat) program for men and women diagnosed with cancer and the people who offer them support during their walk with cancer.  This program offers activities like crafts, massage, reiki, fishing, and much more.  It offers the men and women who attend a chance to be surrounded by others who know what it is like to be them.
 


It is crazy to think that we are officially in summer mode.  Summer is always my favorite time of year since I get to see all of the hard work that we do during the year pay off as we watch the children, men and women in our programs enjoy all that our programs have to offer.
I wish everyone a safe start to their summer and to every camper and volunteer who is coming to camp this summer, see you soon!