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At 4-H Camp in Riverhead, fun is strictly off-screen

Below is a an article that was printed in Newsday on July 31st. Article was written by David Reich-Hale

At 4-H Camp in Riverhead, fun is strictly off-screen

July 31, 2015 by DAVID REICH-HALE /

It's a rite of passage at the Dorothy P. Flint 4-H Camp in Riverhead: Boys come together on their first day and talk about their favorite things, one of which is usually video games -- specifically Minecraft.

In the game, players create homes and shelter using building blocks. Depending on the mode, it may be necessary to gather resources and fight off monsters. Minecraft, in some ways, sounds like a real-life nature camp.

Except at this sleepaway camp operated by the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County, it's strictly prohibited.

So are the YouTube videos the girl campers often brag about between telling their new mates about dance classes and their friends back home.

Yes, campers are welcome for the one-week stay on 140 acres on Sound Avenue along Long Island Sound, but not their electronic devices.

"It's a shock when they get here," said Traci Prevost, 25, of Massapequa, the girls' assistant camp director. "Especially the boys, they're so engrossed in their cellphones, iPhones and iPads. It's interesting to see them on the first day. They're all talking about their favorite games, and social media like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. But a day later they're over it. We've disconnected them."

In sessions from late June through Aug. 22, about 130 campers live with roommates and perform daily chores that include tidying up their cabins, cleaning up litter and maintaining campgrounds. Most of the campers, 60 percent, come from Nassau, while 30 percent come from Suffolk and the rest from New York City and other areas. Campers also participate in activities that include archery, yoga, gardening and jewelry making.

Each weekly session costs $675, said camp director Brian Morris, 46, of Levittown. Unlike many of the 50 counselors, Morris had no affiliation with the camp before being hired last year. He had taught fourth-graders at schools in Elmont, Valley Stream and Brooklyn before moving into the nonprofit field. Morris said that he loves the camp's no-technology rule and that campers are so busy they don't miss their devices.

"Their days are packed from beginning to end," he said.

While parents can't call their children, they do get to stay connected, so to speak. Camp photographers take pictures of campers and upload them to a secure website daily, Morris said. And parents can send emails, or "bunk notes."

"I print them out and deliver them to the kids daily," Morris said.

'Old-fashioned fun'

The Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County also operates a 4-H camp -- Peconic Dunes, on Soundview Avenue in Southold. It offers eight one-week sessions held at the same time as those at Dorothy P. Flint, and also has the same rules prohibiting technology. The camp fee is $649.

According to the nonprofit American Camp Association in Martinsville, Indiana, kids benefit by being unplugged.

"Young people between 8 and 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours a day absorbed in media, most of which is solitary," said Tom Holland, the association's chief executive. "Camp provides children a rare opportunity to unplug."

Holland said 74 percent of the association's member camps prohibit personal electronic devices.

Luke Dilworth, 17, of Manhattan, a junior counselor, attended the camp for three years before becoming a counselor in training, a two-week process followed by an interview, in 2014. Going without devices is an adjustment, but not a big one, he said.

"By the second day they were talking about the beach, activities and good old-fashioned fun," he said.

It's a tradition that dates back 91 years to 1924, when Dorothy Flint, a 4-H girls educator, took her students camping at Lake Panamoka in Ridge. Flint later moved the camp to Wildwood State Park in Wading River, where it remained until organized camps were banned there. In 1939, Flint's mother, Margaret Powell, bought the land that 4-H now calls home and rented it to Suffolk County until Nassau County bought it from her in 1949.

Modern-day campers are placed in either a youth or teen group, and both sets are greeted by loud bugles at 7 a.m., announcing sleep time is over. By 7:30, the youth group is eating breakfast. Then, after the U.S. flag and the 4-H flag are raised, teens go and eat while the younger campers work on chores.

"They clean the common areas, sweep up the hallway or go and clean their bunk," Morris said.

At 9:30 a.m., all the campers meet and classes dedicated to various sports, the beach, yoga or the farm begin.

Maddie Musnisky, 16, of Rockville Centre, is a counselor in training who teaches a farm class. She said campers learn about the animals on the grounds, which include chickens, goats, cows and bunnies.

"We play with them," Musnisky said. "Alright, we don't actually play with the cows, but we seed the gardens and we learn about the different animals. It's hands-on."

The cows and goats are borrowed from a local farm, while the pigs are sold to a local farmer. As for the chickens and bunnies, they stay put.

"We have a farm manager who comes in throughout the year," Morris said. "He takes care of them."

Meanwhile, the farm animals, and 4-H itself, have helped Musnisky, who is in her seventh year at the camp, with life lessons. The Southside High School junior said that last year she was assigned to care for an "infant." The computer-activated 8-pound baby would cry whenever a diaper change or feeding was needed.

"I learned to keep my cool under stressful situations at this camp, so I handled this," she said, adding that she also performs better in group projects because of 4-H.

Farm is Matteo Paratore's favorite class. The Port Washington teen is attending the camp for two weeks this year, his sixth at 4-H.

"It's such a fun class," said Paratore, 15. "I've learned how to use tools, how to take care of certain plants and also how to handle weeds. I've learned how to handle animals as well. I've been in the chicken coop, where we've chased them around, played with them and cleaned the area. It's great. It makes for great memories."

Campers remain close

The memories will last a lifetime, said Larry Berger, 70, of North Merrick, president of the board of directors at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County.

Berger, who has had multiple stints on the board, has a lengthy history with the camp, like many on the staff. Prevost, the assistant camp director, first attended when she was 7. Berger started going when he was 9 years old.

"I just hit it off with the people and the place," he said. "I fell in love with the property a long time ago, and many of the friends I've made have remained close. We have alumni groups and Facebook groups, and even though people are spread out around the country, we remain in contact."

The board also includes Kathy Rathgeber, a former camper and counselor at 4-H in the early 1960s, and Don O'Callaghan, who started working on the camp's farm around the same time. He stayed on as a Cornell Cooperative Extension educator and was camp manager and administrator before retiring in the late 1990s. Bonnie Garone was a longtime camper and counselor in the 1960s, and Bill McCabe was a camper and counselor in the 1990s.

Berger remembers the school bus that took him up Sound Avenue, and the loud cheers everyone gave at the sight of the rocks painted with the 4-H logo. He said the camp has changed very little over the decades, although "it only cost $25 back then," he recalled, adding that some of the classes reflect interests that have shifted over time.

"I used to teach Morse code," he said. "I'm not so sure that's taught anymore."

The constants include the winding walk to the bluffs that overlook Long Island Sound. About 200 steps lead down to the beach. Those that Berger and hundreds of previous campers took have worn away and been replaced.

"The stairs are awesome," Paratore said. "On the way down, it's like a stairway to heaven."

Or as Mona Duggan, 10, from Manhattan, describes it: "Going down is easy. The way up is hard."

But it's worth the effort.

"The beach is fun," Duggan said. "I love the beach so much."

Camp's capital campaign

The Dorothy P. Flint 4-H Camp launched its "90 for 90 Capital Campaign" last September at its 90th anniversary celebration. The goal is to update the farm and other buildings, including the lodge and cabins, with fresh paint on the doors and new screens.

Greg Sandor, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County, said improvements would also include winterizing parts of the facility so it can host events year round.

"We've raised about $30,000," Sandor said, adding that a former camper has committed $1 for every $2 the organization raises. "So we are halfway there."

The alumnus is Norman Brodsky, 72, of Long Beach, who went to the camp for 14 years starting in 1949. Brodsky, a writer and businessman, said he is glad to donate because "I have great memories of the camp."

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Last updated August 4, 2015