On June 30, 2021

Camp Betsey Cox provides a home to life-long campers, celebrates summer opening together

By Katherine Lazarus

PITTSFORD—To say that the campers who go to Camp Betsey Cox quite frequently return for a follow-up year, is like saying the sun is lukewarm. It’s such an understatement it’s a story in itself.

Betsey Cox Campers in costume pose ready to perform in a camp play during a past summer.

Take camp staff member Angela “Angie” Willis VanBuskirk, 46. She is not only a former camper and parent to current camper Mya, 13, but she was even here as a staffer’s child for the first five years of her life when her parents worked at Betsey Cox’s brother camp, Camp Sangamon. She is literally a lifer.

“I keep coming back because every summer is new and different in some way, I just love the state of Vermont and the people, and the experience that my daughter is going to get keeps me coming back,” said VanBuskirk, who is a native and current resident of Venice, Florida.

Her father, Don Willis, began working as the sports director at Sangamon, founded in 1922, when he was 24. He and his wife brought their baby girl with them to camp that first year and — as a physical education teacher in Florida — decided that working for a camp was a perfect summer job. He worked there for the next 46 years and now, at 70, is retired but still spends his summers at the camp overseeing the facilities.

Camp Director Lorrie Byrom, whose mother, Jean Davies, founded the camp in 1953 along with her husband Charles, noted that the VanBuskirk’s family connection to the camp is replicated in many of their camp families, with 85% of campers coming more than once. Her daughter, Devri, is now with her at the helm, while her son, Jed, directs Camp Sangamon for Boys.

Like most summer camps geared toward kids, Betsey Cox puts fun and outdoor activities as a focal point, yet they add something unique with a specific aim to embrace diversity.

The multicultural atmosphere really set in when two of Malcolm X’s daughters attended in 1969, and one of them, Ilyasah Shabazz, wrote a whole chapter about her experience in her memoir, “Growing Up X,” that was published in 2003.

That seemed to jumpstart a surge of kids of color coming up from the outh to follow in her footsteps, which naturally prompted diversity to be incorporated into the camp culture. In 2020, Byrom added a statement of commitment and action to Betsey Cox’s mission, positioning itself as a place of “support of diversity, equity, inclusion, and action.”

Byrom will confront the issues of equity this summer by talking about the Black Lives Matter movement of the past couple of years. But it’s not just diversity that gets special focus. The environment has also been an important educational component at the camp.

“We want girls to find their voices and take a stand on issues important to them,” Lorrie said.

Although not politically affiliated, Byrom said she does “align with care for the planet.” In fact, every summer, first-year “Mugwump” teen leaders each gives a “morally courageous” speech about topics spanning a range of issues, such as saving the oceans, climate change and stress in schools.

A camper kisses one of the resident chickens at the Bestsey Cox working farm.

This summer, kids can look forward to learning about diversity through a meeting at the camp with an Abenaki elder. They will go to the Clemmons Family Farm, an African American owned farm in Charlotte, to discover the magic of preserving, empowering and building in a multicultural artist community.

But “camp is not school,” Byrom said. “Fun is first, and the learning is embedded.”

After closing the camp last summer because of the pandemic, the exploring and fun is set to return on June 27.

Byrom will welcome kids back to the phone-free respite that will have a few pandemic holdovers: Hand sanitizer is in every cabin, and campers will be separated by age during activity times. 

But because activities at Betsey Cox are mainly outdoors, the restrictions are minimal.

The biggest restriction this year is that everyone who attends must be from the U.S., which conflicts with one of the camp’s missions: promoting world-wide diversity. There will still be blow-up globes and flags from every country the camp has hosted — from Southeast Asia to Europe — lining the walls in their dining area, but not the excitement of making friends from around the world. That will have to wait until the following summer.

In the meantime, campers and VanBuskirk are getting ready for the summer. VanBurskirk unpacked for pre-camp training 10 days ago in a rustic wood cabin canopied by groves of birch, ash, and, of course, sugar maples.

“Besides looking at the view from the garden, the pond also has mountains in the background. It’s just a beautiful place to work,” she said.

Maybe that is why she and her husband, Todd, whom she met at camp when he was teaching tennis and she was a lifeguard, chose to spend their honeymoon in one of the five staff cabins that dot the western side of camp, a 10-minute walk through a path in the woods to the spring-fed small lake called Burr Pond —  where everyone swims, kayaks and canoes.

As well as water sports, campers will fill the arts and crafts building, help in Right Mind Farm, their organic farm that produces food served in the dining hall, and attend the weekly socials with Camp Sangamon.

VanBuskirk will help set up for the next few days, joining a staff of 50 to get ready to greet the 100 campers for the first three weeks of official camp. VanBuskirk then heads home, attending only part of the 8-week camp, while Betsey Cox continues through Aug. 21.

“It’s not that many people,” she reflected, but, perhaps because of the impact it has on campers’ lives and because campers stay connected, “it feels like a big community.”

Looking forward to this year’s session, VanBuskirk fondly remembers another staff member’s child, Hadley, who had joined the drama program. “It’s neat to see which kids end up on the stage and to watch them from when they’re tiny to getting that confidence to stand up and act in front of everybody.”

With another summer of excitement set to unfold at Betsey Cox, it’s not surprising that VanBuskirk said she hopes “to be here forever, just like my dad.”

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