BY LINDA MOSS
THIRD IN A FOUR-PART SERIES ON THE SALVATION ARMY IN NEW JERSEY
Darell Houseton says Camp Tecumseh saved his life. Now he's helping save others.
The 19-year-old Newark man first came to the Salvation Army camp, which is nestled on 400 acres in rural Hunterdon County, in 2004 as a staff member.
"I had just completed my first year of high school, and 29 of my classmates were killed that summer, murdered," Houseton said. "Most of it was gang-related. But some people were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, innocent bystanders. Twenty-nine is a lot. And I like to think that since I was at camp, I wasn't No. 30, ‘cause some of these people were my friends."
This is Houseton's sixth summer working at the residential camp in Pittstown, which offers children from across the state a week-long respite in the woods. The New Jersey Division of the Salvation Army says about 1,200 children attend Camp Tecumseh during its summer camping sessions. The camp also offers programs for senior citizens and veterans.Camp Tecumseh typically has 150 to 180 children during a week, according to Major Scott Kelly, camp director. Its 95 staff members come from across the United States and around the globe, including Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, England and South Africa.
"It gives our campers a bit of a world experience," Kelly said.
It also gives urban youths a chance to see a bit of nature and rural life. Camp Tecumseh has four horses and a barn with a large sheep named Dolly, goats, ducks and chickens.
One year, Houseton brought campers, some tough older boys from Newark, to see the barnyard animals, according to Kelly.
"When you're talking inner-city kids, that's completely foreign to them," he said.
The youths got scared by an aggressive flock of ducks, and weren't happy about being near the goats or chickens, either.
"They weren't so tough after that," Kelly said. "It allowed them to break down their defenses. So they weren't as tough as they thought they were."
Camp Tecumseh costs $470 for a week's stay, but the New Jersey Salvation Army and its local centers subsidize that fee, according to Kelly.
"So the actual cost to the families is minimal," he said.
The campers come from all over the state, not just urban areas, Kelly added.
Camp Tecumseh is located on rolling green hills and was originally a Civilian Conservation Corps camp built during the Depression. The Salvation Army began using the site as a camp in 1964, and its facilities now include a new 600-seat tabernacle, a lake, a pool, a tepee village, a miniature golf course, residential cabins, a mess hall, an outdoor pavilion and a nature lodge.
As part of its programs, Camp Tecumseh conducts "Reunion Camp," where it reunites siblings who have been placed in separate foster homes by the state Division of Youth and Family Services.
Kelly recalled that a few years ago, four siblings living in four different homes were reunited at Camp Tecumseh.
"On the last night, the youngest boy was just devastated because he knew the next morning, they were going to be split up again," Kelly said. "It's heart-wrenching to see that. But to have a time when they can be here and spend time together is wonderful."
Camp Tecumseh also serves older citizens, offering five "senior" residential camps, according to Major Martina Cornell, who runs that program.
"They (the seniors) just like the fellowship," Cornell said. "They just like the break. They like the nature, the beauty of it."
Two of the five senior camps are for grandparents who have custody of their grandchildren. The senior campers enjoy a week-long stay in a lodge located across the lake from the children's cabins.
"That gives them (the grandparents) a little bit of a break and a respite while the kids are safely taken care of on this side of the lake," Kelly said.
On one recent foggy day, during a senior camp, women were doing arts and crafts, fashioning wall decorations out of bars of soap and yarn, under Cornell's direction.
"I came for first time last year," said Connie Stanford, a 72-year-old Burlington resident. "For a whole year I've been waiting to come back this time."
Stanford said she liked "everything" about Camp Tecumseh, including the religious devotions, the spiritual aspect and "the people you meet here."
She described herself as "a person who really doesn't like to go anywhere, but this fascinates me. I just love this camp. It's relaxing. Everybody helps everybody, and the major (Cornell) really looks out for me. I love everybody here."
Camp Tecumseh also runs a five-day camp program for veterans and their families, from 100 to 150 people, in late August. The New Jersey Salvation Army operates that program in cooperation with the Lyons and East Orange Veterans Hospitals. The veterans get to enjoy the kind of relaxation and recreation that the children campers do.
Houseton said Camp Tecumseh is a life-changing experience for the kids.
"When they come here each summer they know for at least a week, and when they leave, there are 100 people here who will always love them, no matter where they are," Houseton said. "And we're going to teach them about Jesus, and he's going to love them even when we're not around. And a lot of these kids just need that."
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