By Gwendolyn Craig
Michelle Taylor’s three boys had their summer plans upended in March when she got word that Double H Ranch would close for the coming season.
“I cried,” the Montgomery County woman said. The boys, ages, 13, 7 and 6, would not be going to camp during this pandemic summer.
The nonprofit organization based in Lake Luzerne is the safe haven for hundreds of children — from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and nearby states — who have severe medical conditions. Since 1993, the 320-acre southern Adirondacks property and its many staffers and volunteers have provided programming, friendship and support to more than 60,000 children. Their work builds on the philanthropy of the program’s late co-founders, the amusement park entrepreneur Charles R. Wood and the actor Paul Newman.
For the first time in the camp’s 28 years, Executive Director Max Yurenda canceled Double H Ranch’s summer program. It typically serves around 900 children from June through August, and employs about 100 seasonal staffers.
The decision, Yurenda said, was partly due to social distancing concerns during the coronavirus pandemic, especially considering the children they serve are high-risk.
But that wasn’t all.
Many of the organization’s volunteers have medical experience, and a number of them were already calling Yurenda and telling him they couldn’t commit to help in the summer, he said. They were called to assist area hospitals with the response to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
“That was a huge part of our decision,” Yurenda said, calling it a “resource crisis.” “You can’t do it running half mast,” he added. “It has to be all or nothing.”
Pat and Dom Martino, long-time volunteers with the camp, said there are always two registered nurses who have full-time shifts. There’s a nurse assigned to each of the children’s cabins, and a number of other volunteers who help with arts and crafts, ropes courses, swimming and other programs, also with medical experience.
“Despite everybody being disappointed — and I know kids cried, and I might have even cried a little — you know the most important thing is we have an obligation to make sure these kids are safe,” Pat Martino said.
State Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, serves on the organization’s board of directors. She said the decision to close was unavoidable.
“It really had to be made,” she said, “and better to make it now than to wait until June going into July, and really disappoint all those young boys and girls that look so forward to going to this camp. And many of them are not in the greatest of health, so it would be extremely difficult to do this.”
Little and Yurenda said Double H is currently working on plans to bring camp to participants virtually. While the details haven’t been ironed out yet, Yurenda said they are looking to use social media and YouTube to keep “camp alive in the hearts of these kids.”
On April 13, Double H posted on Facebook a “challenge” for camp participants: Wear a favorite camp shirt or accessory and post a photo on social media with the hashtags #campmagic, #doubleh and #campswag.
Yurenda hopes Double H will be able to continue with its fall and winter programming, though he is monitoring virus news closely. Canceling summer was hard enough when he announced it through a video on the organization’s website and on Facebook. Parents and volunteers alike flooded the comments section with disappointment and understanding.
“It’s best for right now,” Taylor said.
Her 13-year-old son Jayden, who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, has been attending Double H Ranch programs since he was 8. Jayden’s brothers, Da’vion and Malachi, were also going to attend camp this summer for the first time.
Through Double H, Jayden has learned to ski and fish, run cross country and play basketball. He has made lifelong friends, Taylor said.
“I’m basically like a single mother of three boys,” she said. “Financially, I would not have been able to do some of these things with him that Double H actually does.”
Taylor reflected on many happy memories that Jayden has had at camp, from a time he posed kissing a fish to a 30-minute round of goodbye hugs when it was time to finally leave.
Volunteers like the Martinos, of East Greenbush, were equally heartbroken. They have been “going to camp” since 1998. Pat is a retired nurse and Dom is a retired elementary school physical education teacher. The pair joke that they have retired to camp; Pat even retired a little earlier than she anticipated so she could devote more time there.
“We’ll get back to camp in a safe way,” Pat said. “This is just a bump in the road, but it’s a big bump for all of us. People say it’s magical, and it really, really is. It really is a magical place.”