Counselor keeping spirit alive

Saturday, August 25
HINSDALE — There is nothing unique about Emma Rathkey on this morning in late August; nothing individual about the fake smile she puts on for strangers, the way she fidgets in uncomfortable conversation or the tears that fill her eyes when she talks about losing her father on a crystal clear September morning six years ago.

For the first time all year, beading friendship bracelets with her bunkmates outside the Camp Danbee dining hall, Rathkey fades into a blur of normalcy — a saving grace for all who attend America's Camp.

"I never wanted to go to America's Camp," says the 18-year-old from Mountain Lakes, N.J., during her first day as a camp graduate and bunk counselor. "I was like, do I really want these kids to know my whole story?"

But after a few days of refusing to talk, smile or even unpack, Rathkey says she realized that America's Camp was the only place that no one needed to ask about her story. They all had one of their own.

"We're not a grief camp," says co-founder and director Jed Dorfman. "It's the one week they're not a 9/11 kid, and they say to us, 'We live 51 weeks for this one week.' "

Since 2002, the Berkshire Hills have been home to the week long camp for children between the ages of 6 and 18 who lost a family member in the Sept. 11 attacks. Though camp enrollment has grown each year from 79 in 2002 to 275 in 2007, Dorfman points out that the sixth anniversary of the tragedy means the youngest campers are the last wave of 9/11 babies.

Campers like Rathkey, once mentored by an all-star staff of counselors from around the country, are trying out new roles as grown leaders.

"Over the last few years, I've seen Emma become a role model that so many people look up to here," said Dorfman. "We were worried about Emma when she first came to camp, but all of a sudden she showed that smile and started to dance and she hasn't stopped since.

"She's so positive. A leader. A listener. And it's so great to see her so excited to share the spirit of America's Camp with 12-year-old girls because other counselors can't know what she knows."

Rathkey's father, David Alan Rathkey, worked on the 86th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower as a sales executive for IQ Financial Services.

This August marked the first year America's Camp was held at Camp Danbee. Previously, Camp Mah-Kee-Nac in Stockbridge hosted the venue. Still, with Danbee's enormous yellow slide that slopes into the lake, a beach volleyball court, a pottery and woodworking shop, a gymnastics room and all the camp essentials, the campers and staff didn't miss a beat.

In its infancy, America's Camp sponsor, the Twin Towers Fund, along with grants from groups like AmeriCares and the Britney Spears Foundation, provided the free camp with dream activities and appearances from celebrities and pro athletes at no extra cost. But according to Dorfman, as the years passed, directors found the kids just wanted to camp — and to be with each other.

Gone are the elaborate day-long trips, daily concerts and television cameras. This summer, America's Camp told Oprah Winfrey thanks, but no thanks.

"The thing we forget is, to us, Sept. 11 was a national tragedy," Dorfman explains. "To them, it was the day they lost a parent. And they have to celebrate that anniversary every year."

Watching counselors interact with campers, you can tell America's Camp is about support.

"I've been to other camps where you have like a coming of age, but there is nothing like the bond at this camp," says Simon Barrett, a counselor to Rathkey's younger twin brothers. "This is a family that you take year round with you."

As Barrett prepared to take his bunk to lunch, he noted the Rathkeys will all attend his wedding later this year.

There is no better place to feel the spirit of America's Camp than inside the dining hall.

"This is where we dance," says Rathkey as we walk toward the building.

And dance they all do. And sing. And clap. And stand on table tops to execute synchronized choreography with an energy you can feel across acres.

Before the music starts, Rathkey sits at her bunk 6A table and helps one of her campers tie a friendship bracelet. Soon the clapping begins, and Rathkey transforms a plastic spoon into a microphone to sing Cascada's "Every Time We Touch," her voice blending with 274 other eager voices: "Your arms are my castle your, your heart is my sky./They wipe away tears that I cry./The good and the bad times, we've been through them all./You make me rise when I fall."

A few times throughout the year, Rathkey and her Camp America family will reunite for sleep-overs, playing mix CDs to dance to camp favorites.

Other days, like Sept. 11, they call just to check in.

"I'll probably send a text message or something," says Rathkey fidgeting with her "God Bless America" bracelet. "It's really a day for ourselves. But when the day comes, we send a little note to say: 'I'm here.' "

To reach Amy Carr:, (413) 664-4995.


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