When was the last time you shot hoops in a tutu, ran through tires and dug your heels in for an epic four-way tug-of-war, all for a good cause?
Enter the Day of Champions. Scheduled for Sunday, May 19, this atypical fundraiser is a family field day created last year by a group of women who wanted to support a nonprofit called Experience Camps.
Westport-based Experience Camps provides a week of free summer camp to children and teens around the country who have experienced the death of a parent or sibling. The camp was founded in 2009 with 27 campers in Maine. This summer, Experience Camps will provide life-changing summer programs to more than 750 children at six camp locations across the country. At camp, kids receive counseling and remember their loved one, and they get to laugh, play and be surrounded by other kids who really "get" what it's like to confront a devastating loss. Experience campers attest that the magic of camp happens when the feelings of isolation that often accompany grief transform into meaningful bonds of friendship. Many campers go back every summer and say it's the best week of the year.
Chief Experience Officer Sara Deren hadn’t previously held a fundraiser in Westport, her hometown. But her friend Gery Grove, a nurse and a life-long sleep-away camper and counselor who lost her father at age 18, wanted to get involved.
“It was a shot in the dark. I wanted to take another cocktail party off people’s calendars and make it a family event," Gery says. "I called Melissa Post and told her my idea. Color War. Families. Camp.”
As another life-long camper and professional camp consultant, Melissa was thrilled.
"Camp was the most defining thing in my life, and I always wanted to do something with that passion," Melissa says.
They were lucky to find the perfect location, Camp Mahackeno, the day camp on the grounds of the Westport Weston YMCA.
Then the pair of power moms reached out to women from different realms of their lives to form a committee.
“Everyone was excited,” Gery says. “It’s a great cause and a fun way to engage your kids in doing something for other kids.”
Christina Langone, who used to work in finance, is now co-chairing the event along with Gery.
Sara Robbin, a law professor and legal writing coach; and Cindy Reejhsinghani, a massage therapist; are in charge of planning the activities. Sara Holland, the beloved local youth sports coach, is also pitching in.
With mixed-age events like sponge relays and a family obstacle course, Sara says “it was so rewarding to see how into it everyone got. The team spirit blew us away.”
Christina, who helped plan the events with Sara and Jennifer Katzner last year, adds: “Adults rarely have opportunities to let loose athletically with their children. How often do you get in there and really do an obstacle course with your 6-year-old?”
Chrissy Toeplitz manages communications with the 20 team captains and 300 participants. In true color war spirit, teams are assigned a color and awarded points based on how well they “jazz up” their outfits. Teams must raise a minimum of $1,000 each to compete, though many raised more. Michelle Yanover captained “Laurie’s Legacy” to honor her mother, who she lost to cancer when she was 7 years old. Their team raised more than $25,000.
Amy Lane, a former high school English teacher, directs the team of more than 30 event volunteers. She is also too familiar with grief.
“I was in my early 30s when I lost my mom, but it’s still such a profound loss, and I had the tools and support to help cope. It’s so apparent the amount of extra support a child needs,” Amy says.
Julie Kaufman and Rory Murray manage operations, which includes parking, food trucks, the DJ and childcare (provided free from Bambino).
Rory's participation is especially bittersweet. Her husband perished on 9/11 when her daughter was just 5 months old. Her daughter had benefitted from a camp similar to Experience Camps, and she was looking for a way to give back.
The team relies on the support of Jeff Kimball, Experience Camp’s chief possibilities officer, also from Westport.
“He is a nurturing soul, almost like a mom," Gery says.
Jeff raised his kids without his wife, who passed away when they were little.
Melissa is in charge of sponsorship and partners and has leveraged her connections through WestportMoms.com to tap into the generosity of local businesses. The team has also garnered some larger corporate sponsors. But even with all of this support, the first event last year felt like a gamble.
“We thought people wouldn't come because we are all so busy and programmed with sports, but they took it ran with it. I mean, we had a man in a unicorn costume!” Gery says. “It started out like a camp day, foggy with drizzle, and by the end the sun was blazing. Everyone came dressed up, and it was this beautiful rainbow of colors. For three hours, every single person got to be a camper again.”
“It worked so well because of the community of women who planned and ran the event, the participants who showed up, dressed up and got messy and the people who supported camp by donating," Sara says. "I thought we were going to raise $20,000, but we ended up raising $145,000. That actually allows us to open up a brand-new camp, which we are doing this summer in Michigan.”
Most parents strive to teach kids about giving back. We also seek to be present with our own kids, and it's a home-run when we find activities the whole family can participate in together. This group of dedicated moms dreamed up a way to do all of that in one action-packed Day of Champions.
Experience Camps is hoping to double the number of children they welcome to camp. If you are interested in supporting the Day of Champions, visit DOCWestport.SplashThat.