DUXBURY — Deb Samuels looked at the winter sun reflecting off of the icy pond at Camp Wing and spread her arms in the air, as if to absorb as much as possible. She’s stopped here often over the past 17 years, but there aren’t many mornings like this left.
Samuels is stepping down in February as the president of Crossroads, a nonprofit that runs the camp here and other programs that use rustic settings to develop leadership skills in kids from cities across Massachusetts, and this view represents some of what she likes best about the job.
“Knowing what it must feel like as a kid to go to a place like this where you’re seeing things and being a part of things you’ve never been a part of before — there’s just a feeling of peace and belonging,” she said.
Samuels, who first joined Crossroads in 2001 and took over in 2006, has led the program’s transition from what for many children was a one-off summer experience into a resource that stays in contact and provides year-round programs as they grow from grade-schoolers into young adults.
Many of the kids come from tough neighborhoods in Boston, Brockton, and other parts of Eastern Massachusetts. They spend weeks living at Camp Wing and other sites run by Crossroads, playing games, participating in activities, and experiencing a setting that is far different from home.
Kevin Phelan, a downtown Boston businessman and the chairman of the nonprofit’s board, said Samuels has made a huge difference at Crossroads, which has existed since 1936.
“She’s taken it from a low-profile, quiet but efficient program into a much higher-profile program than it ever was before,” said Phelan, who is co-chairman of the Boston office of the real estate firm Colliers International. “It’s fun being a part of it.”
Samuels, who grew up in Australia, is leaving the job to return home to be closer to her relatives as they age. Crossroads is searching for a new leader.
Alex Cuprinski, who works on the organization’s communication and development staff, said it’s hard to think of Crossroads without Samuels. The two first met when Cuprinski, who is from Brockton, joined a leadership program for older students in Ashby. After college, he returned to work for her.
Cuprinski said Samuels has a warm, compassionate style that has helped shape the experience of so many kids.
“When they see Deb, they know that they’re they safe,” Cuprinski said. “They’re happy, they’re in a welcoming place, a free space where they can be themselves. From the first day I went to camp, I recognized that, and to this very minute, I know that’s how everything is here.”
Samuels said her approach is a function of the delight she takes in the work. She came to the US as a teenager 1989 to begin working at summer camps, moved by how kids open themselves to novel experiences when given new surroundings.
It was in that spirit that she took the job leading Crossroads, and it is in that spirit that she will leave.
“That’s really how I got here. I said yes to stuff that I didn’t even know if I was going to be any good at it,” she said. “It wasn’t a big grand plan, so I think I’m going to do the next chapter the same way.”