By Jim Hague
LEBANON TOWNSHIP –
The brown sign off the eastbound lanes of Route 22 reads “Baptist Camp and Conference Center,” but in reality, it’s the home of Camp Fatima, a safe haven and makeshift Shangri La, nestled in the lower hills of Hunterdon County, a place where, for two weeks, nearly 100 or so disabled young people get a chance every year to enjoy their lives to the fullest.
Incredibly, the staff at Camp Fatima is comprised mostly of Harrison residents, including some of the town’s best known athletes and coaches.
Everywhere you turn, there’s a Harrison native, doing their best to make the campers feel loved and comfortable.
Of the 70 or so adults who volunteer their time to work at the camp, 45 or so call Harrison home. It’s almost like a Fresh Air Fund for those from Harrison, getting away from the hustle and bustle of the urban blacktop and escape to assist those who need it more.
Ask any of the volunteers about what their experience is like going to Camp Fatima and you might not get a definitive answer.
“I can’t tell you what it means,” said Ray Lucas, one of the most famous athletes hailing from Harrison. “I don’t have the words. It’s so much more than just Camp Fatima.”
“It’s one of the greatest places on the planet,” said Nick Landy, the head volleyball and basketball coach at Harrison High School. “We all talk about it all year long, waiting for camp to come. It’s a special place for all of us.”
The Harrison connection with Camp Fatima began two years after the camp started in 1968.
In 1970, Patti Gerris was a student at East Orange Catholic High School, when one of the nuns at the school showed the students a slide show about the camp.
“So we started to raise money for the camp,” said Gerris, who recently retired after 34 years as a teacher and counselor in the Harrison school system. “We started to sell balloons and other things to help them raise money. When I was in college at Jersey City State (now New Jersey City University), I was a special education major. One of our requirements was to do 30 hours of volunteer work, so I thought of Camp Fatima. I called some friends and asked if it was something they were interested in volunteering to do.”
It didn’t take long for Gerris to realize that Camp Fatima was going to be part of her life forever.
“I was hooked from the minute I walked onto the camp site,” Gerris said. “I knew that this was something I had to do. I got my brother and sister involved. Some nieces and nephews as well. Cousins, I have a huge amount of cousins.”
Gerris became passionate about her commitment to Camp Fatima and its campers from the outset. She became Camp Fatima’s chief recruiter in terms of rounding up fellow volunteers.
“I started at the high school after I started teaching there,” Gerris said. “I really didn’t want to shove it in the students’ faces. I just said that we needed help. Never in a million years did I think we’d get so many people involved.”
One of the first Harrison High students that Gerris approached was Landy.
“Nick was in my homeroom and I saw he had the same passion that I have,” Gerris said.
“She brought me right in,” said Landy, who has been involved with Camp Fatima for the last 27 years. “When you see a camper remember you and they get excited, there’s no greater feeling. They want to give us the world. People come to volunteer and they can’t wait to come back.”
Another former student that Gerris recruited to Camp Fatima was Lucas.
In 1987, Lucas was still a Harrison High student, before he would eventually head off to become a standout quarterback at Rutgers and later the Jets, Patriots and Dolphins in the NFL.
“I vividly remember a camper named Lilly May, who always had playing cards with her,” Lucas said. “On the first day here, she didn’t have her playing cards, wanted the cards and when she didn’t get them, she put her hand hard into a two-inch thick glass door. I stopped breathing and moving.”
“I said to him, ‘Ray, breathe,’” Gerris said.
“It was like everything had stopped, like the world stopped,” Lucas said. “I remember saying that I wanted to go home right then. But Patti had to take care of me like I was a camper. This was in the first five hours I was here. Patti saved me that day and then I was hooked. I think it was almost a right of passage in Harrison, that you had to come to Camp Fatima.”
Lucas remembers the most touching moment he experienced as a counselor.
“There was a girl named Casey who was in the pool every day,” Lucas said. “She was there from when it opened until it closed. On the last day of camp, she was unpacking her suitcase instead of packing. When someone asked her why she was doing it, she said, `I want to fit Ray in my suitcase so I can take him home with me.’ I lost it. I was crying.”
Gerris knows that perhaps Harrison’s best known and loved athlete is just another counselor at Camp Fatima.
“No one cares that Ray was the quarterback for the New York Jets,” Gerris said. “He’s just Ray. It really puts your life into perspective. It’s like no one cares what happens in the real world. We call that Fatimagic.”
“That’s what this camp does to you,” said Lucas, who is now a respected sportscaster on SNY’s coverage of the Jets and does color commentary for the Rutgers football radio broadcasts. “It changes all of our lives forever. It’s really hard to explain what this is like. You really would do anything for these kids. The kids see you in a different light. We’re just typical, normal people, but to them, we’re everything.”
Lucas missed some years of Camp Fatima because he was busy with NFL training camp at the same time.
“I wish I didn’t play in the NFL, because I missed camp for years,” Lucas said. “Last year was my first year back and I got to see camp through my daughter’s eyes.”
Lucas’ daughter, Rayven,who will be a senior at Harrison High this year, is now a counselor as well.
Lucas also likes the fact that he spends time at the camp with lifelong friends from Harrison.
“I’ve known Nicky my whole life,” Lucas said. “I don’t get to see many of them all year, but they are like family and I like being together. It feels right. I don’t know anywhere else.”
The campers are of several different disabilities, some much worse off than others. There are those who are confined to a wheelchair. There are some who are mentally disabled, others who are physically disabled. There are some campers affl icted with Down syndrome. In that respect, Camp Fatima doesn’t discriminate against certain disorders. It encompasses them all.
“We have some campers that are so severely disabled that we consider the week as parent respite,” Gerris said. “We have one family that has three autistic sons. They know it’s safe to leave their sons with us, so for the first time in ages, the parents went to the movies. We don’t say no because of a disability.”
To become a camper at Camp Fatima, there is an application process. Unfortunately, with that, there’s a waiting list. Approximately 75 percent of the campers are return visitors from prior years.
“We have a committee that goes through each application,” Gerris said.“Each application is reviewed.” There’s unfortunately room for only 70 campers.
“We don’t have any room for any more,” Gerris said.
There is also one counselor assigned to each camper, one-on- one treatment.
“It ranges from changing diapers and wiping faces to just being there,” Gerris said. “Some kids don’t say one word, but they speak with their eyes. You know there’s something there.”
The entire camp is privately funded, with the money raised by donations. There are fundraising events like a trip to Monmouth Park, a dinner/ dance, a comedy show and a golf outing. A local Teamsters group had a motorcycle run to benefit Camp Fatima.
One Harrison resident and former Camp Fatima counselor Tony Espaillat pushed 11-year-old camper Anton Frazile 26.2 miles in his wheelchair during the recent New Jersey Marathon. They called their fundraising group Team Anton-y and collected more than $30,000.
“No amount we receive is too small,” Gerris said. “I think we got everyone in Harrison involved. The whole community got involved. It’s such a give-back experience. Tony is now in the East Newark police academy. He’s very driven and a wonderful kid.”
Perhaps the most touching moment last week was the pairing of two sets of twin brothers from Harrison.
Danny and Chris Hidrovo are Harrison grads, twins who played both baseball and football for the Blue Tide, graduating in 2007. Landy, who coached both, introduced them to Camp Fatima and the Hidrovo brothers have been counselors for the last six years.
This past week, the Hidrovo twins were paired with David and Adam Seney, 10-year-old twins from Harrison who are autistic.
The 23-year-old Danny Hidrovo said that he got involved in Camp Fatima because of his brother. Now, both brothers work full-time with kids with autism and emotionally disabled at a school in Fairfi eld, a school run by a former Camp Fatima counselor.
“If it wasn’t for my big brother and mentor, I wouldn’t be here,” Danny Hidrovo said. “Being here is a heart changer. All you need to do is put yourself in their shoes and you’ll understand it better. It’s an escape from reality. I’m able to be a kid again with these kids. I get to show them a little bit of fun. You don’t get that in the real world. I got to express my inner child again.”
Giving back to the community is something that Danny Hidrovo has taken to heart, as he is now a member of the volunteer fire department in East Newark.
“You find that the adults who come just keep coming back,” Danny Hidrovo said.
“I don’t know what I would do without camp,” Chris Hidrovo said. “These people, they’re a part of my life. There’s never a dull moment with the kids. They’re all unique in their own way, whether it’s a hug or a high-five. I enjoy every moment with them. You really come to appreciate more of what you have compared to them. I’m glad to share that with my brother.”
There’s another thing that Gerris, Landy and the Hidrovo brothers share, other than hailing from Harrison. Their Camp Fatima tattoos. It’s the camp’s logo complete with the year they started as counselors. Gerris’ stamp is on her foot. Landy’s sits proudly on his shoulder. Chris Hidrovo has his on his left bicep. About 20 or so of the Harrison contingent have the Camp Fatima tattoo, to have as a part of them forever.
Campers also never leave. Tony Garcia is a disabled 20-year-old who has been part of Camp Fatima for the last 16 years.
When he was a camper, Tony was known for his stirring rendition of “Born in the USA.” Now, he works in the kitchen with the title of CIC or Camper in Charge.
“I’m glad I can still come,” said Garcia, who helps with the preschool kids in Harrison while he still attends special school in Ridgefield. “It gets me excited to come to camp.”
When asked what camp means to him, even Garcia was at a loss for words.
“I have no idea,” he said. “These people, they’re my friends. And I love Harrison a lot.”
Obviously, so does Gerris, who relinquished her title as camp director and was just a kitchen helper last week.
“It’s overwhelming, the support we get from the people of Harrison,” Gerris said. “I’m a real stickler about being proud of where you come from. But it’s not the same kind of pride until you get here.”
Paul Murphy, a resident of Union who has spent the last 16 years working at Camp Fatima, was the camp director this year.
“My cousin was a camper, so his brother and I started volunteering,” Murphy said. “I just wanted to help out, but it was so moving.” How moving? “
Well, we had a 12-year-old camper this week who was crying when his family left, because he was homesick,” Murphy said. “Now, he’s having the time of his life. He’s confident, smiling and incredibly relaxed.”
Murphy was once an accountant, but gave it up to become a special education teacher because of his experience at Camp Fatima.
“I became a teacher because of this place,” Murphy said. “It comes full circle. Now, the campers are helping us.”
It was Christmas in August at Camp Fatima last Friday. Landy dressed as Santa Claus. Lucas was pushing wheelchairs. The counselors all made special gifts for the campers. It was just another day at Camp Fatima, courtesy of the dedicated close-knit people of Harrison.