For 30 years, Camp Iroquois on Keuka Lake, a former YMCA camp in the Finger Lakes region, has given thousands of these children the chance to grow and learn together in a fun, summer camp atmosphere.
Summer vacation is supposed to be a period of relief and fun for children to explore the life that exists outside of school walls. But for many economically disadvantaged children in New York State, what summer really means is instability, boredom, and long periods of unguided time that can open the doors to things worse than youthful mischief.
For 30 years, Camp Iroquois on Keuka Lake, a former YMCA camp in the Finger Lakes region, has given thousands of these children the chance to grow and learn together in a fun, summer camp atmosphere they would never have were it not for the New York State Sheriff’s Association (NYSSA) Institute.
Camp Iroquois, at 1000 East Bluff Drive, six miles south of Keuka Park in Yates County, is owned by the NYSSA Institute, a not-for-profit corporation formed in 1979 to operate some of the charitable and educational programs of the Sheriffs’ Association. The Association is chaired by Yates County Sheriff Ronald Spike and Vice Chairman Schuyler County Sheriff Bill Yessman, and Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero serves as a board member.
The actual operation of the camp falls to the man who helped bring it to Keuka Lake all those years ago. Camp Director Dave Sherman attended Camp Iroquois as a boy from Elmira in the 1950s, when it was operated by the Chemung County YMCA, but the camp eventually fell out of use. Later, as a Physical Education teacher in Elmira in the 1980s, Sherman reawakened the camp from dormancy. Meanwhile, the Sheriffs’ Camp had been operating since 1976 at a Summer Ranch in Chenango. In 1986, the Sheriffs’ Camp came to Camp Iroquois, which was then used as the Y camp for three weeks, and then five weeks for the Sheriffs’ camp as a rented facility. In 1992, as the YMCA camp involvement began to decline, NYSSA purchased Camp Iroquois outright as a bold commitment to not only continuing their youth outreach, but expanding it further.
According to NYSSAI, each County Sheriff is given a predetermined number of camper slots. Sheriff’s Offices use a variety of methods to identify deserving children to attend, including recommendations from teachers and social workers. The primary criteria is economically challenged children and children who can benefit from the positive interaction with Deputy Sheriffs who make up part of the camp staff each summer. Locally this year, Yates County youth were among those who attended Camp Iroquois the first week, and Ontario County youth came on the second week.
Sherman staffs the camp with 40 to 45 counselors who have shown themselves to be highly motivated, positive individuals “dedicated to helping young people find the right path to a meaningful and productive life.” The ratio of camper to counselor is about 4.5 to 1.
Four to six Deputy Sheriffs are also in residence during each of the nine 1-week sessions, taking leadership roles in the camp’s daily curriculum, acting as mentors to the campers. Still more Deputies visit the camp each day for demonstrations of law enforcement techniques such as K-9 teams and scuba diving, as well as a presentation about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
“Our Sheriffs’ Summer Camp provides a wholesome summertime experience for hundreds of our state’s disadvantaged children,” says Christopher G. O’Brien, Executive Director of NYSSAI. “Our goal is to help children to become good and respectful citizens by using an environment and format that’s fun and exciting for them. Last year alone, over 800 children attended the camp! This year, we are making plans to serve even more children,” he adds.
Sherman says, “Almost every county in New York Sate invites 10-20 campers, who do not have the opportunity to enjoy a camp experience, for a one week stay at the Sheriffs’ Camp. Campers arrive in a charter bus if they live farther away, like Jamestown, Plattsburg, or Suffolk County, or in vans if they are close by. Everything is paid for by the N.Y.S. Sheriffs Association and its donors.”
This year, almost 900 campers have been invited to spend the week at camp. Each week, an average of 132 campers enjoy a wide variety of activities and learning experiences, including swimming and water safety for many who have never had the opportunity to spend any length of time at a lake or pool before.
Land classes include: Football, Basketball, Soccer, Gymnastics, Archery, Arts & Crafts, Cheerleading, Ironman, Volleyball, Hiking, Photography, Lacrosse, Carpentry, and Dance.
Waterfront classes include: Swimming, Sailing, Canoeing, Fishing, Snorkeling, Skiing, and Kayaking.
Beyond these are also many of the camp traditions, like singing around a campfire, games, and hiking, that can form happy memories and friendships that will last a lifetime. Sherman and Camp Cook Kevin Burdick is proof of that — they both attended Camp Iroquois in the 1950s, and they are as much a part of the place as it is part of them. Burdick says no matter who owns it, “Camp Iroquois is still Camp Iroquois.”