HOUSATONIC -- While teaching English at Monument Mountain Regional High School in 2012, Sheela Clary asked her students to create presentations on something they were passionate about.
The projects ranged from video games to photography to wrestling. The latter presentation, by sophomores Sebastian Zapata and Craig Cooley, left an impression on her.
Inspired by their idea, Clary began to solicit donations to create a financial aid fund to help Berkshire youths go to summer camp to pursue their passions.
And so the Crocus Fund was born.
"[The flowers] always reminded me of summer and the hope of doing fun things in the summer," Clary said. "I wanted to expand for other children that hope for summer."
Seed money came in part from the former Adam Dutcher Brooks Memorial Fund, started by the Brooks family of Sheffield in honor of their teenage son who passed away in a car accident.
Zapata and Cooley became the first Crocus Fund recipients from Berkshire Hills Regional School District, attending an intensive wrestling camp at Penn State University. They went on to graduate this year as co-captains of the school's wrestling team with two others.
Today, the Crocus Fund is still trying to spread its roots and expand its outreach to help kids and teens go to out-of-school programs, summer camps and on other trips they otherwise would not be able to afford.
There are currently 14 youths, ages 6 to 17, who are being supported by the Crocus Fund to attend various local summer camps and programs.
"They've helped us identify kids who are really in need," said Jessica Speer-Holmes, executive director for YMCA Camp Hi-Rock in Mount Washington. "They're kids who need respite from the tough things they're going through or maybe just a chance to come and have fun, to be here, and be inspired.
Speer-Holmes said nearly 25 percent of the approximately 1,000 campers it serves in the summer receive financial assistance through the camp's funds. She said having support from the Crocus Fund helps fill the gaps, even if it's just to support a couple of students.
Clary said she works with area camps and programs to help meet the need.
"During the school year, everyone can go to school and do activities for free, but parents are left holding the ball in the summer," she said. "Our goal is to equal the playing field. So many students have so many interests and passions. It galls me that they [can't pursue them] because of cost."
Michelle Apland is the executive director of Flying Deer Nature Center in nearby New Lebanon, N.Y. The center teaches students to become stewards of the environment and nature.
During the school year, Flying Deer is partnered with Taconic High School in Pittsfield through the federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program. Apland said the Crocus Fund bridges for students the school year programs to summer programs. Instead of just 90 minutes twice a week after school, students can go to Flying Deer for an overnight immersion program.
Last year, The Crocus Fund sent Andrew Harris, then a freshman at Taconic High School, to Flying Deer.
"Andrew brought so much back with him [from the summer] and so much confidence," Apland said. "This year, as a sophomore, he did the school year program with us. He became a real leader in helping and inspiring others."
Like Camp Hi-Rock, Flying Deer Nature Center has also been ramping up its efforts to raise scholarship funds so that no student gets turned away.
Professional actress and Berkshire County resident Jayne Atkinson-Gill ("Criminal Minds," "House of Cards") was quick to lend her support when she learned of the Crocus Fund.
"Its mission is so close to my heart," she said. "Every child deserves to have fun -- to play and be in a nurturing environment that reflects to them their value and what is important to them, whether it's a sports camp, an arts camp or training with a circus. These children are our newest ‘citizens-in-the-making,' and we offer them hope and inspiration by listening to their heart's desires."
About the Crocus Fund ...
Partners: Leadership Exchange (a service trip exchange program to Haiti for Monument Mountain Regional High School students), Flying Deer Nature Center, YMCA Camp Hi-Rock, Flying Cloud Institute, Kutsher's Sports Academy, Camp Becket Chimney Corners, and Music in Common's Summer Youth Summit.
On the Web: thecrocusfund.org
To make a donation: The Crocus Fund, Attn. Sheela Clary, 2 Water St., Housatonic, MA 01236.