Back in 1953, hundreds of kids from around the city — mostly from Brooklyn and lower Manhattan — traveled for miles to a newly-purchased campsite tucked away in the hills of Staten Island.
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was still 11 years away from completion back then, so children commuted by ferry and then by bus up Manor Road to experience the ultimate camp experience — fresh air, green spaces and clear streams — at the Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds.
This was a new place — and a new concept — for inner-city children whose only experience with recreational programs consisted of often overcrowded amenities like community centers, rented vacant lots, schools or public parks.
Polio was on the rise at the time, and parents who lived in the city wanted their children to leave the hot summer streets behind for a healthier, rural environment.
“The concept of camping was to take kids off the rooftops of the various ‘Ys’ and community centers, and bring them out for a summer day camp experience, rivaling a sleep away camp that parents could afford,” says Jeff Coopersmith, the executive director of the grounds.
The first 30 acres of the site were purchased in 1952 at auction through a $1 million grant from the Henry Kaufmann Foundation. Kaufmann, a Pittsburgh philanthropist who was passionate about the benefits of the camp a, and helped to fund several along the East Coast.
The push to leave the city and head for the great outdoors was born. The Staten Island site — which now encompasses 75 acres, nestled away among acres of untouched forest now known as The Greenbelt — gave birth to a camping model that would take root across the country.
In those early years, hundreds of kids enjoyed the camp. Today, those numbers are between 1,200 and 1,400.
Still, much about Camp Kaufmann remains a mystery, even to some native Staten Islanders, who often confuse it with the nearby William H. Pouch Camp. (Pouch, owned by the Boy Scouts of America, is currently New York City’s only Boy Scout camp, sits on a separate parcel of land that adjacent to the Kaufmann site.)
With the exception of a small portion of the land that’s owned by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Campgrounds owns and operates the Camp Kaufmann site, while various agencies in Staten Island and Brooklyn run their own specific camp programs there.
‘Green’ before it was en vogue
At Camp Kaufmann, says Coopersmith, the simplicity of just experiencing Mother Nature has traditionally been the focal point of the camp experience. Teaching kids to build an open fire, for example, and how to take care of it, were some of the skills that taught kids how to respect the environment. Nowadays, with the push for environmentally-friendly programs and lifestyles in all walks of life, Coopersmith likes to joke that Camp Kaufmann cornered that market a long time ago.
“We were ‘green’ before [the term] was ever invented!” he says with a laugh. “These 75 acres are the most pristine, most environmentally-secure sites in New York City. ”
In fact, Coopersmith says, the campground was only wired for electricity two years ago.
Still, the concepts that worked for kids back in the 1950s and ’60s apply today, he says.
“Number one, it has to be safe. Number two, you have to be able to make a friend. That’s the basis of all camping. If you hit a home run, what’s it worth if you don’t have a friend to share it with? And number three, we teach life skills kids will always remember.”
There are also lessons to be learned in community service.
As the Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds program expanded, the camp began hosting events for local police groups, firehouses and churches. It recognized a growing need to develop programs for special needs children — a priority that Coopersmith says has always existed, and always will.
“It’s a hidden gem,” he says, “that will be kept in perpetuity.”
The Henry Kaufmann Camp now includes three sites in the tri-state area: Staten Island, Long Island, and Pearl River in Rockland County. For more information about any of the camps, visit www.camphkc.org.
For Staten Island parents who are interested in learning more, contact the Staten Island Jewish Community Center at www.sijcc.org.
Monica Brown is a cable television news anchor and freelance writer. She lives in Staten Island with her husband and two children, and can be reached at [email protected].