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A Camping Experience with a Lasting Influence on Generations of Youth

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October 25, 2020 | By Keana Bertocci

Mon Valley Youth And Teen
Medium Charity Of Excellence Seal Png

Volunteering starts with the heart; it is clear that Mon Valley Youth And Teen Association, Inc. instills just that. Camp Watakamini is a place where over 40 adults take several days off work to volunteer their time for children. When I explain to “outsiders” what it’s like to only see faces for 10-15 days out of 365 days a year and pick up where you left off the year prior, they look at me like I’m crazy – we truly are a close-knit group of individuals. There are not many grown adults who take unpaid time from their full-time, working responsibilities to enrich youth lives. This alone sets the group apart from other organizations.

MVYATA goes above and beyond to help all in need. There are several aspects of the program- Resident Camp (Camp Watakamini), Day/ Weekend Camp, Care and Share, Kid’s Connection and Enrichment, and so much more! Each of these parts plays a vital role in our main goal to help the children of the community. Since the year 2000, I have been a part of this incredible group of caring hearts. While my career has moved me roughly 100 miles from the center of MVYATA, each summer I am always lead back to my home away from home- Resident Camp Watakamini.

Camp Watakamini hosts and provides a getaway for children from the age ranges of newborns (if their parent is present) through the age of 18 years old. I started as a camper at the age of six. From that time, no matter what this life journey has placed in my path, one specific week of my calendar is always cleared for Camp Watakamini. As I am approaching my 21styear, I can’t help but reflect on what MVYATA brings to the table. Camp Watakamini is a place of friendship, an opening of the heart, the opportunity to find oneself and behave as such without judgment, and most importantly … a place of safety and comfort. For decades, Camp Watakamini has recognized that there are underprivileged families, whose parents may not be able to afford the cost of sending their children to a seven-day summer camp. Many fundraisers are held throughout the year to ensure that every child has the opportunity to attend through a “campership;" however, these fundraisers do not come close to providing for the number of individuals who need our assistance. As counselors, we see and hear everything from a child being sent with two outfits in a suitcase to last the entirety of the week, to a child openly stating “Please don’t make me go home. I love camp. There’s food here. We don’t have any at home.” If your heart ached reading that last sentence, just imagine stepping into our shoes and hearing it first-hand. This camp has opened my eyes to recognizing that not every little boy or girl has the beautiful childhood that I grew up experiencing.

At resident camp, I am blessed with the responsibility of an incredible cabin of girls ranging from ages 12-16. While they all have different backgrounds and unique personalities, they work together to learn responsibility while completing daily capers, such as cleaning the “poogies” (bathrooms), building a fire and cooking dinner over a flame, raising and lowering the American flag correctly, recycling, picking up litter, just to name a few. In addition, they have fun learning about one another, taking hikes, going swimming, spending days at the lake beach, playing sports, singing at campfire and writing their own group songs, performing at the talent show, paddle boarding/boating, taking a snipe hunt, raiding, winning the cleanest cabin award, and much more! In leading by example, Camp Watakamini counselors and staff members teach manners, values, sportsmanship, and responsibility that children learn and carry with them in their everyday lives - even when they go back to their hometowns.

While the Watakamini week is always full of a roller coaster of emotions from both counselors and campers, I can’t help but cry tears of joy and happiness on more than one occasion. I stand back and watch children run from one end of the basketball court to the next with the biggest smiles on their faces; I enjoy talented performances (at the camper Talent Show) and witness a crowd of children cheer in excitement when a young girl gets the courage to stand up and sing in front of her peers; and I help serve children three meals a day who respond with “yes, please” when asked if they would like a second helping, as these just may be the best meals they’ve eaten in a year. This is just a small glimpse of Camp Watakamini.

MVYATA has influenced my life in more than just opening my heart to children. This organization could not run and operate without the entire behind the scenes efforts. From the beginning, I recognized that I loved volunteering for a program of such and that my career path should follow that lead. With the help of Camp Watakamini, I determined my calling was to become a Certified Activities Director for a nursing home – to which I have held this title for the past seven years. I absolutely love my position, being the reason behind the smiles, and directing (while working alongside as a team) 21 employees. This passion for planning organization, and creating laughter all started from a summer camp known as Watakamini.

Not failing to mention, this organization has provided me with some of my best friends ranging in ages from 17-65+. Although we all started as strangers, spending ten days, 24/7, alongside one another lead to sharing life stories, personal details, biggest fears and life goals. I got married on July 14, 2018 and over half the volunteers at Camp Watakamini were at my wedding. This was not an event close to their homes, as the ceremony took place in West Virginia. All attendees from Camp Watakamini traveled a minimum of 1.5 hours and booked hotel rooms to ensure they could share in on my special day. This is the true definition of a family. This organization has played such a large role in my life and I could never be more grateful.

While I could write forever about the impact the Mon Valley Youth and Teen Association has had on my life, I’ll leave it at saying … Camp Watakamini is a family. I have created wonderful friendships with unbelievable individuals who go above and beyond – ensuring that strangers’ kids have the time of their lives for seven days at Laurel Hill State Park. If you would like to thank everyone who makes this organization possible, please select MVYATA at a recipient of this grant. I know I can speak for all of our volunteers when I state that the best gift you can give us is the availability to sponsor additional children to provide an escape from their reality via fun and games, hearty meals, and incredible friendships. Thank you for your time and consideration!