June 22, 2006
Sum, sum, summertime
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Diocesan camp prepares to welcome kids from near and far
SKANEATELES — For the 26th consecutive season, Mike Preston opened up Our Lady of Lourdes Camp in Skaneateles the same way — turning on the water, then the power, then mowing the playing fields and lanes in between each cabin. For over two and one half decades, Preston has been a persistent presence at the camp, keeping kids involved and active, but also maintaining an awareness that sometimes kids just need to be kids.
As camp director, Preston tries to organize the campers’ time so that there is an element of structure, but also plenty of free time. “We do a lot of sports but there’s also a lot of free time built in,” he said. “The free time allows a camper to just be a kid. When everything’s organized, there’s no time for a kid to just be a kid.” According to Annette Krisak, the president of the Lourdes Camp board of directors who worked closely with him when she was employed by Catholic Charities, Preston is gifted when it comes to keeping campers plugged in to camp life. “He’s very easy and the kids just love him,” Krisak said. “He’s really engaged with the kids and he doesn’t give up on kids when they’re homesick.”
Preston interviewed for the position of Lourdes Camp director at the request of then Syracuse Diocese Schools Athletic Director Jim Ruane. At the time, the diocese was merging the athletic director position with that of camp director and Ruane thought Preston, with his keen enthusiasm both for the outdoors and sports, would be a good fit. Preston obtained his degree in physical education from Brockport State and had been working for the Syracuse Parks and Recreation Department before Ruane called him.
After a multi-tiered interview process, Preston was hired Oct. 27, 1980.
According to Krisak, Preston was instrumental in implementing several innovations at the facility. During his tenure, Preston has broadened the focus of the camp to include inner-city youths that are able to attend via “camperships.” He has also expanded the camp services to include clients of Aurora, which serves the deaf community.
The camp’s facilities have also expanded to include two new cabins, a gazebo and a new pavilion at 10-Mile Point. Despite the camp’s expansion, Preston has tried to limit renovations to Lourdes Camp in order to sustain the nostalgia one might have for the camp. “If a parent who has been here as a kid comes back with their own kid I want it to look just like it did when they were here as campers,” he said.
But Preston asserted that the most rewarding element in his job is the commitment the young people often invest in the camp. The vast majority of camp counselors and other staff members are alumni of Lourdes Camp. The camp’s waterfront director, Molly O’Keefe, who attended the camp as a child and then was a counselor during her high school and collegiate years, said that Lourdes Camp was as formational an experience for her as high school. “My ‘camp friends’ are closer to me than my high school friends or my college friends,” said O’Keefe, who teaches in the West Genesee School District and attends St. Mary’s in Baldwinsville.
O’Keefe also said that Preston has a knack for keeping all those who attend and work at the camp motivated. “He’s definitely a leader. He’s a role model not only for the campers but also for the counselors. He leads by example,” said Krisak, adding that Preston is the first one to dive into any job. “He’ll get right into the mud.” According to Preston, the camp has drawn attendees from as far as California and Colorado. Others have even come from other countries, including France and Mexico.
“I have no idea how they’ve even heard of the camp,” Preston said, although he also theorized that many of them likely have relatives who are from the Syracuse area or who still live in Central New York. Lourdes Camp is 64 years old. When it was first established, the camp was strictly for Catholic youths but its mission has expanded to include children of all faiths. Nevertheless, Krisak, whose children attended Lourdes Camp, said the camp philosophy is still inspired by a “core belief in God.”
For Preston, the rewards of working at Lourdes Camp are ever renewing. “As long as we have a good summer and the kids are happy and the counselors are happy, then that’s a highlight,” Preston said.