DUXBURY — Camp Wing has its cherished rituals, and one of them takes place during the daily lunch break at its picturesque lakeside site.
So it was that 200-plus kids were dancing and belting out songs blasted by a DJ moments after finishing their pizza one day last week. Many of them were wearing capes or other costumes, or had dyed their hair blue, as part of an X-Men-themed competition. To an outsider it looked like an alien invasion, but those involved swear it is one of the program’s great bonding experiences.
The participants at the camp aren’t from well-off Duxbury, or anywhere nearby. They are children from cities across the state, taking part in a three-week program designed to introduce them to a world that, to them, is as distant as a foreign country. The camp is the centerpiece of Crossroads, a program designed to teach leadership skills to underprivileged youth and prepare them to enter adulthood.
The campers ranged from 8 to 18. Their counselors are young adults. Almost all of them are Camp Wing alumni who have stayed connected to Crossroads. Holding it all together is Deb Samuels, the program’s executive director and unrelenting voice of optimism.
“To me, this is like the metaphor for everything,” Samuels said, as she watched the party taking place around her.
“Young people feel like they have to be a certain way and don’t feel confident being themselves, and expressing themselves, and being joyful.” But at the camp, she said, “they get to look up to role models who have been in their shoes and been on the path that they’re on, and see that it’s OK to be silly and dance in the dining hall.”
Crossroads serves about 1,200 youth each summer. In recent years, it has expanded into a year-round program as well, with camping trips, leadership programs, and college tours during the school year.
The Crossroads program is sometimes compared with — or confused with — Camp Harbor View, a terrific program that serves a similar population on Long Island. But they differ in many respects, one of them being that Camp Harbor View is a day program, while Crossroads is residential.
To talk to counselors who have been part of the program for much of their lives is to hear how powerful the experience of camp has been for them.
James Tarrant is a counselor who has been part of the program since he was 12. He said he relates to the kids who find it difficult to assume leadership roles.
“Not only did it allow me to find myself, it also gave me an opportunity to be myself,” Tarrant said. “I was a reserved child growing up. Didn’t necessarily step up, didn’t necessarily take the lead. Once I became a staff member I realized my voice has power. It was a transforming experience.”
But there has been a growing awareness that the social and emotional gains of three weeks of camp lose their value if they aren’t reinforced. The goal of the program is give kids a path to a better future, not just a vacation.
Kevin Phelan is a fixture in the downtown business community, but Crossroads is his pride and joy. He raises tons of money every year to fund the program. He said he came to appreciate that Crossroads had to be year-round to accomplish its goals.
“At the end of each [camp] session, I would wonder, ‘What are they going back to?’ Phelan said. That question has become a fixation.
Samuels said about 85 percent of the program’s alumni go on to college, with many of the others landing in programs like Year Up, the job training program. She said there’s no one outcome that represents success — besides happiness.
“Whatever your path is, we’re going to help you find it, and be on it.”