Fred's Hill is a small, grassy hill on the north side of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Dobbs Ferry. On any given summer's day, you'll find children running up and down Fred's Hill, laughing, chasing butterflies, hula-hooping, or just basking in the joy of playing outside. These children belong to Our Victory Day Camp, a summer camp unlike any other in the Rivertowns.
"We designed a camp for those children who are special needs who do not need a highly, highly supportive special needs program, but they can't make it in a mainstream day camp" said Fred Tunick, Director of Our Victory Day Camp and the Fred after whom the Hill is named. "So these are kids, in most cases, who fall between the slots. These are kids that need the support. They're LD, ADD, ADHD, High functioning PDD and Asperger's kids."
Fred and Iris Tunick officially began Our Victory Day Camp in 1995, but began working in Dobbs two years earlier.
"In 1993, a relative asked, 'How would you like to direct a camp we're going to be starting in Dobbs Ferry?' It was called Northwood Day Camp--at first I said no," Fred said. "But we did volunteer to interview a few prospective campers, because we interview every child for the program; nobody just applies. After I interviewed a couple of the kids, I was sold."
Northwood Day Camp did endure, closing its doors only two years later for financial reasons. "But we [Fred and Iris Tunick] decided we didn't need that kind of income. We loved the kids, and decided to keep it going. That's when we changed it to Our Victory Day Camp."
The Tunicks have been working with special needs children for all of their adult lives, Fred as a speech pathologist and Iris as a special education teacher. But both feel that their lives' careers were "happy accidents."
"I just applied for a job that happened to be in special ed.," Iris said. "It could have been anything. But once I got in, that was it; I was hooked." Fred, meanwhile, took advantage of a government grant opportunity as an undergraduate to go into speech pathology. Like Iris, once he started on that path, he never looked back. They worked with special needs kids their whole lives, finally retiring in 1997 and turning their full attention to Our Victory Day Camp.
The camp averages 65 campers per season, with a maximum of 70. One of the things that sets the camp apart is the number of counselors on staff. They maintain a 3-to-1 ratio of campers to counselors. Including specialists and lifeguards and so forth, there are currently 36 staff working at the camp for the 65 campers.
"I like the small-group atmosphere," said Group Leader Gina Rotanelli. "You can form closer relationships with the kids here rather than at regular camps that have a lot more campers."
Equally important as the quantity of counselors is the quality. "The head of each group is usually in the field of special education," Fred said. "And the assistants are at least in college, usually studying something in the field."
Most of the counselors return to Our Victory year after year, and so are already acquainted with many of the children. This year, there are only six new counselors out of the 36 staff members. "A lot of the kids come back year after year as well as the staff, so it forms a really awesome environment for the kids," said Rotanelli, who is currently working her third summer at the camp. "It's really comforting and consistent."
It would be easy and perhaps cliché to say that Our Victory becomes one big family year after year, but in this case, it's true. Many of the counselors have a brother or sister in the camp, or are the brother or sister of a previous counselor. The Tunicks never advertise for new counselors because so many family members step forward with recommendations when an opening occurs. This helps create the unique bond that permeates the camp. "The staff are our kids in many ways." Fred said. "And the kids are our grandchildren in many ways."
The children come from all over Westchester, as well as Stamford and New York City. The Tunicks will interview a new child for placement at the camp starting at age five and going all the way up to age 12. Technically, that's the oldest child they'll take, but they do make exceptions. "Once they're mine, I'll keep them for as long as they want," Fred said. "Because at that point in their lives, where do they go?"
The camp is open five days a week- from 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.- and runs for seven weeks, generally beginning in the last week of June and ending in mid-August. During a normal day, campers may have art, movement, sports, drama, music, and swimming- which they do at a small pool across the street at Mercy College.
"Without Mercy College's compassion, we couldn't have this camp," Fred said. "To offer these kids a program without swim--putting them under the sprinkler instead--we would probably stop and not run the camp. Because then they're not like their siblings; they're not like everybody else."
Treating each child with the respect he or she deserves is of paramount importance at Our Victory. "We see each kid as an individual and each kid has their own potential that we want them to live up to," said Assistant Counselor Emily Erwin-Mcguire, who is working her seventh summer at Our Victory.
"I feel like a lot of camps are more like a babysitting service. You're there not to make an impact on the kids' lives but just to give them someplace to go. Here, you're here because you love the kids. You can see that in every person that works here. We all love the kids and want to make a difference in their lives and we want to help them be the best kids that they can be."
And Our Victory has also made a difference in Erwin-Maguire's life. "I really want to be a special ed. teacher because of this camp," she said.
Walking through the campus, it's easy to see how much everyone cares about everyone else. There's laughter, hugging, crying, and a desire to explore that can be seen in every child--and in every councilor. That this is a family, there can be no doubt. For Fred and Iris, however, the feeling of family extends to the generous nature of the community surrounding them.
"Dobbs Ferry has been a blessing," Fred said. "We live in Stamford, Conn. But if my kids and grandchildren were not in Connecticut, we would have been down here within two or three years." He singles out all the local merchants who have gone out of their way to make Our Victory feel at home. Sam's Pizza. Dobbs Diner. The Mobil Station down the street. And of course Aldersgate, for giving them a home. "We feel like we're part of a family here and I think Dobbs is an amazing, fortunate community."
Iris echoed that sentiment, expressing her desire to come back for many more years. "The whole thing is fantastic," she said."Sometimes we just pinch ourselves to see if it's real."