NORTH BROOKFIELD — “They have opportunities to do things here that they might not necessarily have back home,” explains Jawad Brown. “This is the space for students to try different things but also have the space to do something that they’re already interested in.”
Brown knows what he’s talking about as he shares what young people from Greater Springfield and around the country can experience at Camp Atwater.
Along with being the camp’s current director, Brown is also an Atwater alumnus.
Nestled on the shore of Lake Lashaway in this small town in Central Massachusetts, Camp Atwater has provided a summer experience for children of African-American descent for more than a century.
Its goal, from the time it was founded, has been to broaden their horizons and provide opportunities they might not have in the cities where they live.
Touted as the oldest African American camp in the country, Camp Atwater was founded in 1921 by Rev. William N. DeBerry and is operated today by the Urban League of Greater Springfield.
DeBerry’s ties to Springfield date back to the early 20th century when he was pastor of the historic St. John’s Congregational Church. He used his leadership to address the needs of Springfield’s Black community in the 1910s, such as providing a free employment bureau and purchasing the property that is now Camp Atwater.
The camp is named in honor of physician Dr. David Fisher Atwater, whose daughter, Mary Atwater, made a substantial donation to the camp in 1926. The elder Atwater served as a surgeon in the 64th New York Infantry during the Civil War.
Brown is among some 55,000 alumni of the camp. Notables such as Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter and former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts Wayne Budd, both of whom grew up in Springfield, also spent a summer or two at the camp.
Brown, who said he’s happy to be carrying the Atwater experience to a new generation of children, isn’t alone in that mission.
Henry M. Thomas III, head of the Urban League and the camp’s president, is also an alumnus.
“It is refreshing to see young people getting engaged in this environment without fear Thomas said. “It’s rewarding for me, too, because I know that my life has been totally enhanced by being introduced to the camp and developing extended relationships that go past the test of time.”
Thomas, who’s been at the helm for Atwater for the last 47 years, still appreciates his time as a camper at 13 years old and as a staff member beginning at the age of 16.
Now, he’s leading a capital campaign with a goal of raising $7.5 million to help “reimagine and reconfigure Camp Atwater so that it may continue as a foundational experience for campers for the next hundred years.” Atwater is the only camp listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Over the course of an average summer, Camp Atwater welcomes up to 160 campers from throughout the country on its 80-plus-acre site. The property includes 40 buildings and a three-acre island. The camp often offers archery, horseback riding, educational classes, athletics, performing arts activities, fishing and swimming.
The camp had to pause operations in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which also limited the extent of operations last summer. Thus, the Urban League chose to consider this summer as its 100th year of operation.
As the pandemic lingered, the camp focused on a day program this year, called “Summerthing,” in which children could fish, play basketball, tennis, volleyball and board games or stand by the lake to simply take in the scenery and savor an outdoors experience, two days a week.
Camp Atwater has also hosted other events tailored to African-American children. One was the Urban Kids Fishing Derby, hosted earlier this month by members of Urban American Outdoors, the first African-American-owned and produced adventure sports reality TV show.
Campers were grateful for the opportunity to spend time away from the city and pick up a new skill, like fishing.
“Everybody’s friendly here, so you don’t have to worry about not talking to people,” said Julius Boyd, 16, of Springfield. “There’s always something to do. If you want to relax, be, go outside and play, it’s all fun.”
Another alumnus, Buck Gee, who attended the camp as a child in the 1980s, now works at Atwater as a groundskeeper.
“It’s great,” Gee said. “I got to see a lot of kids that came here, (who are) adults now have their kids come here.”
The camp plans to offer more activities and allow the campers to stay overnight again beginning next summer.
Students from Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy have been working all summer to ensure the campsite and cabins are in good shape for next year.
The students are now working with Conservation Legacy, a non-profit organization that has chosen to support locally-oriented conservation service initiatives.
Repainting each cabin, repairing the steps on each of them and tidying up the shoreline have been among the tasks the students have been assigned to do. Like campers, the Putnam students have been grateful as the work has allowed them to widen their horizons and explore nature.
“At first I was kind of scared,” Putnam student Amerie Williams said. “I was going from living in my house to being outside for eight hours. I am glad that I was able to come over and come out in nature.”
Thomas is grateful for yet another summer of memories it’s given him and is optimistic the capital campaign will succeed both in raising funds needed to refurbish the camp’s infrastructure but also help establish an endowment fund to secure it for future generations and provide funds that will cover the costs of camperships for underprivileged children.
Some $2 million of the capital campaign will be designated for the endowment, he said. The balance will be used to upgrade the camp’s facilities, including its fishing grounds, cabins and water system.
The Urban League has received approximately $50,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds through the state, $100,000 from Westfield Bank, $30,000 from Balise Toyota and Balise Lexus and $50,000 from Comcast.
Westfield Bank president James C. Hagan said of the contribution to the capital campaign, “This contribution represents our firm commitment to the Urban League as it reimagines and reinvigorates an invaluable Massachusetts institution that has played such an important role in the lives of Black youth in Western Massachusetts and beyond for a century. Westfield Bank is very proud to come on board at this time of the campaign and we encourage other corporations, foundations, and individuals to join us in supporting Camp Atwater’s centennial.”
Thomas said the public can reach out to the Urban League to support the capital campaign.
For more information on how to donate, contact the league at 413-739-7211.
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