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30 years ago, Camps for Kids began sending Milwaukee kids to summer camp


Camps for Kids

By Bobby Tanzilo

This piece is exclusive to Milwaukee Recreation and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without permission.

If you attended an overnight summer camp, or sent your kids to one, you know what a life-enhancing experience sleepover camp can be.

Thanks to a program founded 30 years ago, thousands of kids from Milwaukee families with limited financial resources have also learned this.

In 1994, Camps for Kids was organized by a number of local organizations with the mission, “to provide life changing, first-time resident camp experiences for children in Milwaukee County.”

The program funds overnight camp stays at a variety of Wisconsin camps for kids ages 8 to 15, and campers and their families are encouraged to stay engaged via a year’s worth of related activities afterward.

More than 25 local agencies refer kids to the program, including Milwaukee Recreation, which awards full weeklong "camperships" to MPS students.

Currently participating camps include Camp Minikani in Hubertus; COA Youth & Family Centers’ Camp Helen Brachman in Almond; Holiday Home Camp in Williams Bat; Camp Manito-wish YMCA in Boulder Junction; and Camp Whitcomb/Mason in Hartland.

Families of campers must be eligible for FoodShare/SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Wisconsin Shares Childcare Subsidies, Medicaid, W-2 or Foster Care to access the program.

Camps for Kids was founded in 1994 by Milwaukee Recreation, the Faye McBeath Foundation, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, COA Youth & Family Centers, Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Southeast, Holiday Home, YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee, the American Camp Association Wisconsin, and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.

The first “camperships” sent 179 kids to camps the following year.

In 1997, nearly 200 kids went to camp via the program and the goal in 1998 was to boost that number by 50 percent. At that time there were more than 15 participating camps.

“(Camps for Kids) provides kids, not only with a breath of fresh air but an opportunity to know that there is a different real world out there besides the one in which they live,” Esther Leah Ritz, a regular donor to the program, told the Journal Sentinel in 1998.

"Even when they go back (home), if they've had the right opportunity in camp, they bring part of that experience back with them – looking for something beyond the street."

Twelve-year old Mike Schellinger attended Camp Menominee in Eagle River in 1997 thanks to Camps for Kids.

"It (camp) was one of my favorite things in life," Schellinger told the paper the following year. "Everyone should have a chance to go to camp and have a little bit of fun. The world would be a better place, as my mom put it.

“Everyone was treated equally. They'd share their stuff. We were like a whole family. It's something I'll always remember, but it's something I wish I could do again."

"It really boosted his self-esteem,” his mother Laurie Schellinger, a single parent of four children, added. “He's a very smart kid and doesn't have a lot of friends in the neighborhood his age. When he went to camp, he was like one of the guys. He had a chance to mingle with people his own age and just fit right in.

"He seemed to mature more in those two weeks, and was more settled down after he came back from camp."

In the end, 235 kids went to camp via the program that year. In 1999, 250 kids attended.

In 2002, Mary Beth Malm, who was executive director of Girl Scouts of Milwaukee Area and chair of the Camps for Kids steering committee, told the Journal Sentinel that from its inception up to that point $450,000 had been raised, sending 1,600 kids to camps.

But, while that sounded impressive, Malm added that fundraising had not really taken off.

"It's been fairly flat," she told the paper. "And that's a problem, because the need has definitely increased. The program has been so successful that there are children out there who want to participate, but we really do need donors to contribute to this effort."

That challenge hasn’t changed much in the past two decades.

Still, thanks to Camps for Kids, more than 5,500 Milwaukee County kids have spent a week at summer camp.

Milwaukee Recreation has typically referred 40-50 MPS students per year to Camps for Kids and between 2013 and 2023 – the program was on hold in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic – 447 MPS students were granted scholarships, though not all of those kids ultimately attended camp.

This year, Milwaukee Recreation plans to refer more than 100 MPS students to the program.

Via another program called the MPS Overnight Camp Program, another 250 MPS students in grades 4-8 will get the opportunity to go to camp, too.

However, that program – which includes some of the same camps as Camps for Kids, but also a few others – is funded with ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) money, which will run out after this year, thus ending the MPS Overnight Camp Program unless another funding source can be found.

To apply for a Camps for Kids full scholarship by the April 19 deadline, visit this site and download the form.

Please consider making a donation to Camps for Kids here at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation website.

NOTE: This article was written for Milwaukee Recreation's institutional history project. While the topic was provided by Milwaukee Recreation, the content was not.

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