Safety, fun, learning.

That’s the unofficial motto of the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) summer environmental education camps — Camp Colby, Camp DeBruce, Camp Rushford and Camp Pack Forest.

“During each weeklong program, we offer environmental and conservation education programs in a group dynamic,” said PEF member Tom Shimalla, camp administrator, who works in the DEC’s Bureau of Environmental Education. “The overall theme is people and kids working together, getting along, and having a safe place to do activities. We encourage interaction, communication, and cooperation.

“Then we get into the principles of ecology for a basic understanding,” he said. “Other activities will then incorporate those principles. Kids learn about freshwater communities, field communities, forest communities. And at the end of the week, we look at the human community and our role in the environment.”

Shimalla, an environmental educator 3, has been with DEC for 14 years. His current role puts him in charge of the DEC summer camp program.

“I oversee every aspect of the camps program,” he said. “We also have two environmental education assistants who devote a majority of their time to supporting the camps program.”

Changes to the camp program in 2020 and 2021

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the DEC was unable to operate its residential summer camps program in 2020 and 2021.

“After careful consideration, it was determined that there were too many uncertainties beyond anyone’s control to ensure camps could open and operate safely,” Shimalla said. “DEC hired nine exceptional former DEC summer camps staff to develop outdoor recreation and natural history themed programs.

“We were able to partner with organizations in a non-traditional way this past summer,” he said. “While we missed the campers being on site, staff were able to deliver programming to 550 participants across New York. All programs were offered at no cost to participants, and most were open to the public.”

Image via NYS DEC Summer Camps facebook page – @NYSDECsummercamps

Celebrating 75 years of fostering a love for the natural world

The 2022 season will not only see the reopening of the residential programs but will also mark the 75th anniversary of the summer camp program. Each camp will host special programming throughout the season to celebrate. Campers and alumni alike will be invited back to camp for these days.

“Though residential camp did not run for the past two seasons, our goal this summer is to bridge the gap and ensure a robust reopening in 2022, the camps 75th anniversary season,” Shimalla said. “We have been planning for the 75th anniversary for some time now. It seems like a perfect fit to reopen and celebrate the long history of the program all in one summer.”

Managing summer camps more than just camp weeks

The job has many facets beyond the 10 weeks of camp programming in the summer.

“It’s pretty much a 12-month operation,” Shimalla said. “In the fall, after the camps are over, we evaluate the summer. We look at the staff evaluations and comments from campers. We crunch a lot of numbers in terms of participation in different programs.”

Camp weeks offer the opportunity for campers to participate in hunter, bowhunter, and trapper education classes. Campers also participate in environmental programs, lessons, and traditional summer camp activities like tie-dying and group initiative activities.

“We try to keep numbers on each of our different programs so we can report back to the different units and let them know how their programs are being participated in at the summer camps,” he said.

Preparations for the coming year also begin soon after the kids return home.

“We begin advertising for seasonal camp staff,” Shimalla said. “We need 60 staff and 52 camp volunteers. Volunteers are campers’ ages, but they come back based on recommendations from directors and camp staff to help in the kitchen, serve food and participate in the programs. We have four volunteers at each camp, per week.”

Shimalla said the volunteers are dedicated to the principles taught at camp. “They are really interested in the program and we are looking for them to become camp aides and maybe even camp counselors in the future,” he said.

DEC staff helps train the new hires.

“I reach out to other staff for support in hiring, training and operating the camps program,” Shimalla said. “Our regional offices, environmental centers and administration units at 625 Broadway (in Albany) provide support personnel to train camp staff.”

Each year, Shimalla also oversees the health and safety plan for each camp.

“We come under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Health, so we need to develop a health and safety plan,” he said. The 300-400-page document covers everything from infrastructure to staff to health directors. “It’s everything we plan to do and implement for the coming summer.”

Infrastructure upgrades also fall under Shimalla’s oversight.

“I collaborate with my coworkers in the Division of Operations to improve the facilities and to maintain them,” he said. “For example, Camp Colby will be wrapping up a dining hall renovation in time for this coming summer. My predecessor was instrumental in getting facility upgrades at the camps. In the last few years, we’ve added new pavilions at Camp DeBruce, Camp Colby and Pack Forest.

“We like to keep things outdoors,” he said of the reason behind building the pavilions. “In all but Camp Rushford, the facilities weren’t originally designed for summer camps so having an outdoor space that’s covered really comes in handy.”

In 2016, the DEC completed construction of its last new camp health center. “We’re pleased and fortunate to have these facilities,” Shimalla said. “The previous facilities weren’t in compliance with changing regulations, so we needed to have these improvements.”

Shimalla and fellow DEC staff also set up food service for the camps, hiring cooks and setting up food service accounts based on Office of General Services requirements. They also enter janitorial contracts for each location.

In 2012, DEC streamlined the registration process for campers by introducing an online registration and management system.

“We coordinate with the vendor to set up for registration day,” Shimalla said. “We can have 1,300 kids each summer at the camps.” DEC now opens registration on Sundays, which is more convenient for parents but also means spaces fill even faster.

Quality education programming, summer activities

Full weeks are a testament to the value of DEC’s summer programs.

“Campers come three different ways,” Shimalla said. “Sponsors, like fish and rod clubs, hunting clubs, organizations, libraries; direct by their parents registering; and camperships. The Diversity Campership Program is for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to go to camp. We work with individual children or groups in the Capital District, Buffalo, New York City and organizations scattered throughout New York.”

The Campership Program introduces youth, who wouldn’t traditionally have the opportunity, to nature and the outdoors before they attend their DEC camp. “It helps them get ready for camp week,” Shimalla said. The Capital District Campership Diversity Program was inspired and coordinated by “Brother Yusuf,” Yusuf Burgess, until his death, Shimalla said.

“He was big in the environmental field and the Children and Nature Network,” Shimalla said.

Planning for the programming at each camp is labor intensive.

“We like environmental conservation officers and forest rangers to come, when they are available,” Shimalla said. “Sometimes we have biologists or other Fish and Wildlife staff give programs. We have connections with a number of colleges and universities around the state who come in and present programs.”

Kids can also participate in traditional summer camp activities, such as canoeing, kayaking, hiking, swimming, arts and crafts, field journaling and more. They can also opt for activities like archery, fishing, hunter education and outdoor skill development.

At Pack Forest, DEC offers a special program for its older campers, aged 14 to 17.

“We have Outdoor Adventure Week at Pack Forest,” Shimalla said. “It’s a little bit above what we normally do. Permanent DEC staff provide more in-depth programming and the overnight camping trips are more intense.”

Overnights are often a camper’s most memorable summer experience.

“Every week the kids get to go on an overnight,” Shimalla said. “When they are doing their closing campfire, and when they are asked their favorite part of camp, most kids say, ‘The overnights.’”

Giving the kids a fun, educational and memorable summer experience is rewarding.

“It’s why we do what we do,” Shimalla said.

Register opens April 10 and fills up fast. Click here for the registration portal.