Those Smiling Faces Say It All
CHELMSFORD -- On a warm early-August morning, the laughter of children fills the camp.
It’s a frenzy of activity, from front to back, side to side.
By one cabin, kids are being shown how to make tie-dyed T-shirts. At another, they draw and paint with watercolors. Some children play and splash in the pool, while the older teens are in the gazebo, practicing their songs for the big talent show at the end of the week. Many friendships are formed here, and will continue long after the program ends for the season.
It has many of the hallmarks of a summer camp, and to the untrained eye, that’s exactly what it is.
But these kids are actually special-education students, fulfilling requirements of their individual education plans, or IEPs -- intertwined with a whole lot of summer fun.
For 50 years, The Paul Center for Learning and Recreation -- perhaps better known by its original name, Camp Paul -- has been providing fun and educational opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities across Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire.
Despite its long history, many are unaware of its existence.
“It’s one of Chelmsford’s best-kept secrets,” said Programs Coordinator Michele Saba, of Chelmsford.
The camp began with parents who wanted a place for their special-needs children to enjoy recreational, educational and social opportunities that were severely limited in years past. That was the dream Anna St. Germain had for her son, and Camp Paul has since grown well beyond its humble beginnings.
In 1968, St. Germain teamed up with Ray Paul, who offered five acres for the camp near Russell Mill Pond. Volunteers did everything from clearing the land to developing programs for students with disabilities.
In 1979, the organization’s directors took out second mortgages on their homes to purchase the 16-acre site on Concord Road where the camp remains today. Throughout the years, the generosity of local philanthropists and businesses has allowed The Paul Center to continuously improve and meet the needs of the population it serves, Saba said.
Now, the center offers a six-week extended school year (ESY) program and week-long sleepaway camp in the summer, as well as Saturday and school vacation programs the rest of the year. Nearly 60 percent of ESY participants are referred by their school districts, while others seek the center’s offerings out on their own.
“I’ve always said, the real heroes are the parents,” said Selectman George Dixon, current co-vice president and a board of directors member for more than 15 years. “The parents do so much work. It’s a 24-7 situation for them, and all we do is provide a little bit of help, some respite care and programs to help the kids.”
Many, like Saba, find their way to The Paul Center through family members who attend its programs or have otherwise been involved in its mission.
Saba’s son, Jack, 20, who has Down syndrome, attended the summer extended school year program for 12 years.
“This was a nice, fun, safe environment for him to be in all day long,” Saba said. “He worked on those academics, but he also got to swim in the pool, he got to do arts and crafts and learn about science and nature.”
Though he left three years ago for a more vocational-focused program through the Valley Collaborative, Jack still comes back to visit as much as he can, and is affectionately called the “mayor of Camp Paul.”
It’s a big family affair for Administrative Assistant Patti Landers, of Townsend, whose sister-in-law attended programs there for several years. Many family members have served on the board of directors, including her son, Christopher Landers, and brother-in-law, Brian Landers, the current board president. Daughter Becca Landers serves as co-director of the extended school year program.
“Once you start here, you just can’t stop,” said Karen Nilsson, of Chelmsford, who is in her 41st summer as a nurse at the camp. “You either last one year, or you’re a lifer.”
She said she has seen many college students come to Camp Paul for summer jobs, and end up switching their majors to go into special education and related fields. Nilsson’s son, Damon, served as a staff member for 14 years, and the experience provided a great background for later jobs in behavior management and children’s recreation programs, she said.
Ethan Trudeau, 19, of Tewksbury, is a one-on-one aide for a boy with Down syndrome -- the same reason his brother, Jacob, 22, originally came to Camp Paul.
Trudeau said he saw how much his brother loved the camp, and it inspired him to work there for the past four years. He’ll attend Rivier University in the fall to study human development.
This is Lowell resident Shirley Archambault’s fifth summer as a nurse at Camp Paul. She said it’s a rewarding experience not only to help the kids with their medications and take care of the usual “boo-boos” expected at camp, but to also form relationships with the participants and see them grow from year to year.
One boy in particular keeps Archambault returning. Sometimes he needs a bit more care and attention than the other kids, but he also knows when to return it, she said.
“If he sees me feeling bad during the day, he senses it, and he’s right there to give me the hug, when I’m supposed to be taking care of him,” Archambault said.
The Paul Center’s 50th anniversary celebration fundraiser gala will be held Friday, Oct. 12 at the Westford Regency. Anyone interested in attending or otherwise supporting The Paul Center can call the administrative office at 978-256-4396 or email email@example.com for details and reservations.
Visit thepaulcenter.org for more information about programs and scholarships.
Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter @alanamelanson.