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If you want to be happy for the rest of your life
Want to make the most of all of your life
There's only one thing to do
Make Burnt Gin a part of you
That's a little ditty written by one of the hundreds of counselors to work at Camp Burnt Gin, a summer camp for children with special needs and chronic illnesses nestled in the woods of Manchester State Forest in Wedgefield.
It talks of the magic of CBG, and this was supposed to be a particularly magical summer.
Burnt Gin was supposed to go into its 75th year of operation this summer, one that was going to be celebrated in a great way. Of course, those plans were brought to an end with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Not being there is very disappointing, particularly knowing that our kids love camp so much and that our staff benefits so much from this experience," said Marie Aimone, who has been the camp director since 1990 and has missed only three years since 1983, her first year at CBG as the waterfront director. "I mean, I miss seeing them myself, but on a much greater level, it's the feeling of loss for all of those other people who value this experience."
Preparations for a summer at Burnt Gin are a year-round effort for Aimone, but she was going into the homestretch when the pandemic began to take hold. While jobs for staff members had yet to be offered, Aimone was on the precipice of getting the ball rolling downhill toward the opening of camp in early June.
That all came to a quick halt as the decision was made to cancel the state Department of Health and Environmental Control-run camp on April 21.
"It was tough," Aimone said. "I know we made the right decision, but when you have done this for 30 years, and truly summer camp, being at camp, being with the kids, being with the staff, seeing all my work come together is like the highlight of my year every year."
She said safety was the ultimate deciding factor.
"Safety is one of our core values. It's what we pride ourselves on," she said. "We build an environment that first of all is going to be physically safe, and then we pride ourselves on the emotional safety at Camp Burnt Gin for the kids and the staff where there's unconditional acceptance where you can try new things, where you can step out of your comfort zone."
That is what is often said is what makes CBG such a special place, the fact that people who have to adjust to the norms of society have a place to go where everything is catered to their needs.
"It's unconditional acceptance and love," she said. "It's an environment where obviously kids can come to Camp Burnt Gin and feel accepted. They're celebrated, and we recognize their strengths, and they grow to recognize their strengths."
Those camp counselors, the overwhelming majority of whom are college-age adults, who help the campers more often than not learn plenty about themselves during their summer.
"For the staff, it's the same thing. I didn't realize that until a little bit deeper in my career," she said. "On a personal level, I knew how great Camp Burnt Gin was for me. As camp director now, I know camp is hugely beneficial for these college students. They are in that phase of life where they are finding themselves. They come to this camp where they not only feel that unconditional acceptance and love, but they are also pushed out of their comfort zone. They're trying new things, and they learn so much from these kids."
Aimone realizes she's been doing her job for a while now by the fact that she now has counselors working for her whose parents once worked as counselors under her guidance as camp director, as well.
"I have people who are 50 years old telling me that one of the most defining times in their lives was when they worked at Camp Burnt Gin when they were 19 years old," she said. "That's huge. People say, 'I only worked one year, but a day doesn't go by that I don't appreciate what a role that played in my development as an adult.'"
'The traditional summer camp feel'
Burnt Gin began in 1945 with the camp in Wedgefield for white children and a camp for Black children at Mill Creek near Rimini. In 1969, the camps merged in Wedgefield.
The camp slowly began to modernize in the 1980s under the guidance of Lane Quinn, who first hired Aimone and was her predecessor as camp director.
"Lane got us the pool, and that was huge," said Aimone of being able to stop having swim lessons at the often slimy Lake Burnt Gin, which also had an alligator named Charley. "She had laid the groundwork for new cabins, and in the early '90s we started the cabin project. They were ones better suited for the needs of our kids."
Burnt Gin offers arts and crafts, fine arts, nature, sports and games, boating and kayaking, as it has done for many years.
"We still have very much the traditional summer camp feel, but that's what Burnt Gin does for these kids," Aimone said. "We're not the Disney World of summer camps by any stretch of the imagination."
While the camp held five nine-day sessions for years for campers between the ages of 7 and 15, it now has seven sessions each summer. There are four six-day sessions for ages 7-15, two six-day sessions for ages 16-20 and one four-day session for ages 21-25. CBG also has a fall session for the older campers. CBG has averaged about 450 campers each summer for the past five years.
"We found many of the campers still needed services after 15," Aimone said. "They weren't outgrowing summer camp, and they weren't outgrowing those recreational opportunities to be away from their parents. That is why we expanded the age limit."
Aimone said the plan is to celebrate Burnt Gin's 75th anniversary next year. In the meantime, CBG will offer an online opportunity for its campers this summer called "Burnt Gin 'N Me."
While she never anticipated Camp Burnt Gin being her life, she said she has been truly blessed to have the job.
"When I took over at 27, it was probably pretty good that I was so na ve because I had no idea what a responsibility a camp director had. I remember thinking that Lane had worked there 10 years, and I thought how long that was," she said. "It's truly been like the best job ever, very fulfilling and something I believe in."
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