Camp Jewell in Colebrook has played a big part in generations of Fairfield County children.
Amy Toth Geckler of Fairfield went there as a child with her dad, Louis Toth, as part of the Indian Princess program run by the Fairfield YMCA. A generation later, her husband took her three daughters there. Her father, now a grandfather, went also, sharing the experience with his grandchildren.
The first time my daughters and I went to Camp Jewell, my oldest was in kindergarten. We drove up, found our bunk, and then Caroline unloaded her bag that her mom had packed. My wife had purchased a few items for our first "camping" trip.
"Wow! Mom bought a lot of new clothes for the trip," Caroline said. She put on her new pants and shoes and ran out to play with her friends Evie, Lizzy and Claire in some nearby mud. The shoes were a little small, so Caroline used them almost as slippers, breaking the back down and slipping her feet into them. By the time we were ready to leave on Sunday, everything we brought was caked in mud .
We saw a girl crying on her nearby bunk. I asked her what was wrong. "I lost one of my bags when I got here and I can't find it."
I asked her what was in it.
"Clothes and my new shoes," the girl said. "My mom is going to be mad at us."
Ehhhhhh! Occasionally we see the family around town, and I avoid eye contact. They have nothing to worry from us anymore. Caroline has grown very tall. We can't fit into their clothes.
Around the time the Toth family was starting to go to Jewell, Dean Manning's family started making the drive. As a young boy Dean loved Camp Jewell so much that he couldn't imagine a brighter future than to be a counselor at the camp. It was his goal. In college he achieved his childhood ambition. Basking in his dream fulfilled, he looked around at the other counselors and spotted a fellow counselor named Kristin Larsen. They fell in love, and in a few years they married. They had two children that soon fell in love with Camp Jewell. They had no choice. It was in their blood.
Their oldest child Taylor, loved Jewell as she was growing up. When they arrived, Taylor would unpack quickly and then spend most of her time down at the lakefront. She loved playing in the water.
About the time Taylor was going to Jewell, my daughters were gaining independence. Each of the dads in our group had an older and a younger girl. But the little girls did not like being called "little girls." So one of the dads came up with "medium girls." We had big girls (10 years old) and medium girls. No little girls. Just big and medium.
The big girls begged for independence from their dads and the medium girls. The dads talked it over, and we agreed -- as long as they met us every few hours at an agreed time at the mini-farm, they could be on their own. If they were late, they would lose the freedom and be thrown back with the mediums. Each meeting, the big girls were at least five minutes early. They earned their independence at Camp Jewell. During all of our trips to Camp Jewell, our path and the Mannings' never crossed until last fall.
My daughters were older, and it was time they started giving back. We went back up to help out on a work weekend, and we met the Mannings. They were starting to build a water park as a memorial to Taylor, who had died the year before of congestive heart failure.
The family was devastated but they decided to do something. Since Taylor had loved the water and Camp Jewell, Taylor Place was born -- a water park similar to the one at Lake Mohegan in Fairfield. It will have shallow pools and sprinklers. But it is more than that. It is designed to help kids get used to the water.
The staff at Jewell said many of the campers are afraid of the water, and this will help kids ease into the swimming program. The Mannings want to give kids the skills and the confidence that Taylor had, but they need help to get it done by the end of this summer.
To help out on the work weekends or to donate money to Taylor Place, email the director, Ray Zete at email@example.com,
The next Taylor Place work weekends are May 31-June 1 and June 14-15,
If our paths had crossed earlier, Taylor would have been a medium girl.
Thomas Lawlor lives in Southport with his wife and two daughters. His "A Father's Journal" appears every other Friday.